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Why It's Good to Let Kids Get Dirty When They Play

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Children and messes go hand in hand. Usually, though, moms and dads work really hard to avoid the spills, stains, and general disarray that seems to follow kids around. Yet, not all messes are created equal. Sure, unwashed hands at the dinner table and piles of toys that never get cleaned up are no-nos, but other types of dirt and disorder can actually be beneficial for your child. Here are some of the reasons you may want to let your little one get good and messy today.

It May Improve Her Health:

A growing number of researchers have been advocating that dirt is something kids need. In her books, Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends (compare prices) microbiology and immunology instructor Mary Ruebush, Ph.D., argues that, "exposure to dirt helps children build strong immune systems that will provide lifelong protection."

This hygiene hypothesis (the belief that dirt can protect children from allergies or illness) continues to be studied. While scientists debate the issue, the take-away for parents is this: playing in dirt isn't so bad and may be helpful. However, you should still follow rules of good health, including teaching your child to wash her hands after playing in the mud or being exposed to germs. And, as even Dr. Ruebush notes, you should keep vaccines up to date since they provide an important boost to immunity.

He'll Get to Use All His Senses:

The feel of mud on bare toes, the sound of a bird, the smell of grass up close -- these sensory experiences help your child understand his world better than any book or DVD. You can tell your child all about berries , but until a toddler sees their bright colors, feels their squishy flesh, and tastes how sweet they are, he won't know what a berry is.

Research shows that when multiple senses are stimulated the brain is more likely to remember what’s being learned. So try teaching counting or colors or new words by using natural materials that engage multiple senses (think aromatic flowers, rough sticks, or odd-shaped rocks).

She'll Build Motor Skills:

Obviously, there are many non-messy ways for your child to exercise her fine motor skills. Many nice, clean toys, for instance, will encourage kids to pick up and maneuver small items and write on mess-free erase boards. The downside is that these games don't allow for open-ended play. In other words, a child can do what's expected and pre-planned, but there isn't an opportunity to experiment much beyond the limitations of the tools and boards already present in the toy.

On the other hand, give your child large sheets of paper, a bit of washable paint, and any number of fun tools for painting and you're more likely to see her get more excited and motivated to use those small hand and finger muscles. These muscles are the ones she'll use for everything from self feeding to buttoning a jacket to writing with a pencil.

Encouraging these fine motor skills, then, encourages independence as well. Just as importantly, though, give your child some creative tools and you'll end up with walls full of beautiful artwork to enjoy.

You May Raise a Scientist:

Open-ended play is also important for encouraging your child to use his large muscle groups -- legs, arms, back, shoulders, etc. There's only so much that can be tried on a playground jungle gym. Yet, you may be surprised what a child will find to do in a backyard or park that has little more than some trees, small ponds, and a dirt pit.

Given the chance to climb, roll, crawl, and jump freely, your little explorer can change that area can into anything he wants. It's also where he can test out "what if": What if I dump some water in that dirt hole? What if I pull some branches off of that tree? Here, your child can start asking questions, making observations, changing the situation to see if it changes the outcome. Yes, he will get filthy, but he will also be thinking like a scientist, which will set him on a path to asking and answering many more questions in the years to come.

She May Get Better at Cleaning Up:

In an odd twist of circumstances, it is often easier to get kids to clean up after a big messy playtime -- but only if you've taken the time to lay down some guidelines for messy time/clean up time before hand.

First, consider creating a zone (one indoors, one outdoors) where your child can make a mess and doesn’t have to clean up right away. Fill this area with toys and materials that encourage dramatic and constructive play.

Next, help your child prepare for the transition from messy play to clean up by giving her notice 15-minutes beforehand that it's almost time to clean up. Remind her in 10 minutes, and then about 2 minutes before it's time, remind her again as you start picking up pieces of the activity and talking about what you're doing next (it helps to make the next thing sound really exciting -- even if it's nap time).

Give your child special clean up tools like a dustpan and brush or even a clean up apron and start singing a song like Barney's famous "Everybody Clean Up" tune. In this way, clean up feels like a game as well and can help you encourage good habits -- to follow the good dirtying up.

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