Playing in Dirt and Mud Builds a Child's Immunity

Parents who are paranoid about hygiene are not doing their children any favours. Exposure to germs is essential for healthy child development
By Laura Twiggs

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Three-year-old Katie* is blissfully happy in one of Vredehoek’s many parks. She’s found a mud puddle to sit in, from which to sample the culinary delights of the thick, oozing earth with the odd slug thrown in as garnish. She looks like a very blissful epicure, albeit a very unkempt and filthy one.
On a bench at the other side of the park four moms tut-tut in hushed tones, their five tots photo-ready on the tartan rugs at their feet. When any one of these five moves more than a metre or two off the clean safety of the woven island and onto the grass, there’s a flurry as they’re redirected towards the blocks, dollies, cars and stuffed toys that have been brought to occupy them.
Katie’s mom looks at me and rolls her eyes. “I used to be one of those,” she says with a mixture of disdain and sympathy. “I even used to carry around antibacterial mouthwash! I used to swab down the trolley at the supermarket before I’d put her in it. I feel sorry for them; it’s such hard work!”
I can’t help feeling more sorry for the littlies on their rug, whose longing glances at Katie (now officially squalid and having her face licked all over by a roaming Labrador seriously intent on annexing the puddle) speak volumes. And it’s not just that they’re being denied the freedom of unstructured play and interaction with the natural world that gets to me. It’s that their moms, in all their well-intentioned neuroses, are actually hampering the development of their immune systems, too.
Dirty Healthy Children
It’s official: depriving your children of physical contact with the ‘Dirty, Outside World’ is bad for their health; a certain exposure to germs is essential for a child’s development; pure exposure to various micro-organisms and other environmental factors leads to pure immune resistance, which means that the child will be less susceptible to disease later in life.
In Western, urban societies, there’s been a growing prevalence of allergies in the last 15 years, and experts say that it’s because of an obsession with cleanliness. One of those at the forefront of the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ is Dr Dennis Ownby, chief of allergy and immunology at the Medical College of Georgia. Among other things, his studies have found that babies in households with multiple pets have fewer allergies at age six or seven, not just to animals, but also to ragweed, grass and dust mites.
But more than that, it seems that parents’ paranoia about their children getting dirty contributes to what has been coined ‘play malnourishment’ by Doug Cole, Chairman of the UK-based International Play Association.
Unstructured Play
According to Cole, there is no such thing as ‘bad’ play, but it’s important to ensure rounded skill acquisition and development by allowing children to experience a balance of different types of play, including some unstructured play where they feel they are allowed to get messy.
His findings reveal that 33 percent of children avoid playing outside in order to keep cherished clothes and trainers clean, and that almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of the children claimed they regularly avoid messy indoor and outdoor play because they worry about getting told off by their parents for getting their clothes dirty. And parental paranoia, he found, was extreme: nearly two-thirds of parents admitted to worrying about being branded a bad parent if their child is seen wearing dirty clothes, so much so that 88 percent admitted they regularly made their children change out of clothes that they deemed less than perfectly clean.
Now thoughtfully chomping on a stone, Katie looks up at the sky and chatters to herself contentedly. It’s hard not to compare what memories she will have of her childhood as opposed to those play-malnourished children on their antiseptic carpet, their moms mistakenly believing they’re keeping them from harm when, all the while, they’re contributing to it.
Ideas for Foul Play
  • Puddle hopping
  • Build a sandcastle
  • Bake a cake
  • Roll down a muddy bank on your side
  • Collect tadpoles
  • Find some worms
  • Make an obstacle course in the garden
  • Get dirty gardening
*Name changed 


Lunette wrote 5 years 33 weeks ago

I took both my children to Moms and Tots where they were encouraged to play and get messy at sensory play. It taught me to also put my hands in and not just point the finger, to dig in and get dirty with them; it was just as good for me as for them. I actually overcame some of my sensory issues doing that.

Anonymous wrote 6 years 44 weeks ago

My son is 8 months old, so it seems natural to feel slightly nervous. Eek! I am just not sure from which age it is ok for him to just dig in the dirt and put sand and other fun things in his mouth. I really don't want to deprive him; it is just that he was prem and after having three miscarriages, I can't help but feel extra protective. I don't care about his clothes - he must play. My question might seem silly to some, but is it ok for him to explore away now and put dirt in his mouth, at 8 months old? He is almost crawling, sitting up nicely unassisted. Please ease my silly fears :)

admin wrote 6 years 43 weeks ago

It's not a silly question - thanks for asking. Eight months is not too young to be exploring in the way the article describes, as this builds his immune system. Just be careful of anything toxic.

Wendy wrote 8 years 6 weeks ago

What would be really useful is a list of poisonous plants to look out for. E.g. I've been told that syringa berries and arum lilies (both in my garden) are poisonous - and my 11-month-old puts EVERYTHING in his mouth. What should we be looking out for?

admin wrote 8 years 6 weeks ago

Hi Wendy. Great question. Read our article about gardening with children to find a list of toxic plants to avoid in the garden:

Catriona wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

I agree. My daughter is 4 and has a little corner in our backyard where she digs holes and measures cups of sand. From big to small cups. Learn through play. She absolutely loves it.

Caroline wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

What parents fail to understand is that children should not be dressed up in expensive brands and then told that they may not play because they will get their expensive clothes dirty or ruined. Children need to experience the world. I own a preschool in an upmarket suburb and so many of our children come to school dressed in top brands, some don't care about getting their cloths dirty, others don't want to play with their friends because they are wearing brand-name takkies and they can't get them dirty. We tell them to take off their fancy clothes so that they can enjoy themselves. My belief is that if there is a ring around the bath at night you know that your children have had a good day of playing!

Mary Wood wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

Agree with Bianca. Let children be children!

Monique wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

I think as parents we forget that everything for our little ones is new. They need to be allowed to explore and if that means a little dirt even better :) Playing outside and being exposed to new experiences, textures and allowing them to learn about the world they live in with the added bonus of building their immune system! I love it (even if to my horror I do get proudly presented with a bug or two in the future!). We need to remember it is not all about us and what the other people will think of us; it is about allowing our little people to grow up well rounded and not afraid to explore their world.

Anonymous wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

I also agree, however I am in urgent need of help and guidance. My son is 4 years old and since he was 4.5 month old he has been with a day mother at her home. I don’t know if he gets a lot of play and outside play as he should or if he gets a lot of structured play. He is a clever little boy and he knows all his colours, shapes and he can count up to 20. But I don’t know when it is the right time to put him in a school. I have already enrolled him in his Gr R school but I am so afraid that he will not be ready and he wont know how to play with other children. There are only 5 children at the day mother and my son is the oldest. Please help.

admin wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

Hi there. We recommend you read the following article about preschool readiness, which appears in our August 2011 issue:

Bianca wrote 8 years 8 weeks ago

I agree completely. I let my son play outside, I let him get dirty as much as possible. He loves it and I know it does so much more good than harm. It's called life and I feel he has to experience EVERYTHING. If he gets dirty, so what? That's what we have washing machines and washing powder and baths and soap for.

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