Want healthy, happy, confident kids? Throw some dirt on them.
Every parent knows getting dirty and messy is practically part of a kid's job description.
Whether they're playing outside, coloring on the floor, or just eating, they'll definitely get covered in something grimy.
Given that inevitable result, there are at least two ways parents can react — obsessively clean their child and scold them for their actions or simply embrace the mess.
And while it may seem strange to do the latter, it actually can be beneficial for everyone involved.
Letting kids have the freedom to get dirty encourages a level of confidence around the unknown world out there. And such an attitude can make them much more capable of navigating their life ahead.
Harley Hawkins getting up close and personal with dirt. Photo via Zoe Hawkins, used with permission.
Plus, letting kids revel in the dirt actually helps boost their immune systems.
"If we are overly sterile and don't expose the immune system to the germs it's supposed to fight, that skews the immune system to an allergic and self-reactive response," explains Samantha Lin, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That's why Lin lets her own son play and explore uninhibited.
"I don't jump to stop him if he wants to get in the sand, dirt, mud, leaves, water running out of the waterspout, etc.," Lin says. "If your immune system is working correctly, then these exposures should not make you sick."
And best of all? Being pro-dirt can make parents' lives less stressful since they don't feel compelled to police their kids' behavior as much.
We spoke with six parents to learn why it pays to give kids the freedom to get dirty.
Their answers are as enlightening as they are hilarious.
1. Zoe Hawkins from Arizona encourages her daughter, Harley, to play with food.
Harley digging in at mealtime. Photo by Zoe Hawkins.
"Using their hands, babies learn to feed themselves, learning the difference in taste and texture between a piece of toast and a spoonful of yoghurt and a wedge of cheese or meat," Hawkins writes on her blog.
"No force feeding, no 'here comes the airplane,' just letting the little one figure out food in a positive, fun way, hopefully setting the tone for a future of wonderful dinner-time experiences and discoveries."
2. Minnesota native Emily Conigliaro made a mud kitchen, and now kids from the neighborhood play there.
Experimentation in the mud kitchen! Photo by Emily Conigliaro, used with permission.
"My daughter really loved to dig in the garden and get muddy," explains Conigliaro. "I poked around on Pinterest and saw the idea for a mud kitchen. So I dug stuff I had out of the garage and found pavers and bricks. Then took a trip with her to the thrift store to pick out what tools she wanted."
"The mud keeps her, as well as most of the other kids in our neighborhood, very busy! They all really love to get dirty," she continues. "They will even sometimes paint themselves with mud. This year we planted some wildflowers next to the mud kitchen so the kids can pick flowers and plants to add to their masterpieces."
3. Living in the infamously dirty city of New York, Andrew Dahl has relaxed into letting his daughter touch most everything.
"She loves grabbing subway poles, and I let her go to town," Dahl says. "She undoubtedly gets far, far more germs at day care, so it's not worth getting too concerned about some subway gunk. She's also all about putting rocks and dirt in her mouth."
Believe it or not, city kids tend to have stronger immune systems because of their exposure to busy public spaces like the subway.
4. Los Angeles mom Diana Metzger lets her baby get messy for the same reason she lets her dog do it — it makes them happy.
Izzy Metzger playing in the sand. Photo by Diana Metzger, used with permission.
"When Izzy was about 1 and a half, a bunch of milk got spilled on the floor, and we let her slide around in it and move it all around with her hands," Metzger recalls. "She was a total mess, as was the kitchen floor, but she was laughing and having so much fun exploring that, so why stop her?"
Metzger continues, "Also I have the same motto about Izzy at a playground as I do for my dog Harper at the dog park (or Izzy at the dog park for that matter). Dirty equals happy, which equals tired."
5. Julie G.'s experience cleaning her daughter's car seat is probably one that many parents can relate to.
Julie G's daughter on the playground. Photo via Julie G., used with permission.
"I use 'dirt is good' to justify just about everything," Julie G. explains. "Most recently, we've had a lot of rain, and my daughter got muddy footprints on her car seat cover. I decided to wash it yesterday for the first time in a year and a half. I was shaking it out over the grass outside first to get rid of crumbs. A Twizzler fell out into the grass, and my daughter ate it. Not too bad except she has only had Twizzlers once, on a road trip, in May."
It may sound gross, but hey, that sort of bold eating might help her be less picky when she's older.
6. And Carol Berkow from Pleasantville, New York, knows her daughter's messes are just part of the building blocks of life.
Helen Berkow enjoying a meal. Photo by Carol Berkow, used with permission.
"She likes to squish things between her fingers, rub them all over her face, stick her face into bowls of food, rub food in her hair, throw everything, and feed the dog," Berkow says. "As much as I'd like things to stay neat at mealtime, and not to have to wash the baby, the table, and the chair three times a day, she needs to learn to feed herself, and she won't learn any other way."
As you can see, dirtiness can have so many benefits, most of which would never be realized if parents force their kids to stay clean.
Of course, getting dirty often requires regular laundering, and some families don't have that luxury. Without easy access to a washing machine, cleaning clothes takes time, energy and money — things some families can't always afford.
The good news is that there are companies like Whirlpool who created the Care Counts™ laundry program – installing washers and dryers in schools to give families in need access to clean clothes. That way, every parent can let their kids get dirty without worrying how they're going to eventually get their clothes clean.
Learn more about how the simple act of laundry is helping improve attendance by visiting Whirlpool's Care Counts™ website.
Having the freedom to get dirty should be something every child enjoys. Not only is it fun, it allows them to explore their world with reckless abandon and learn about themselves. This is just one way to help turn what's become a privilege into every child's right.