Playing in the soil may deliver more than just good unclean fun. According to what scientists call "the hygiene hypothesis," our society's overemphasis on cleanliness may block our exposure to beneficial bugs. The trillions of microorganisms that live inside us (including ones we pick up from our environment) "are doing something important for us," says Dr. Dorothy Matthews, a professor at The Sage Colleges. "Especially the ones in our gastrointestinal tract, where most of our immune response happens." In addition, Matthews and her colleague Susan Jenks discovered that mice exposed to a common soil microbe experienced a boost of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin and a decrease in anxiety-related behaviors. In short, she says, "There's something about exposure to organisms found in soil that's good for us." So go ahead and make those mud pies (just don't eat 'em!).
Encourage your child to get down and dirty with one of these open-ended activities.
Since ancient times, people have built entire villages using mud bricks, and your little ones can, too -- on a smaller scale, of course. Have them pack mud into old ice cube trays or egg cartons. When it dries (it may take up to 24 hours), kids can use the bricks to build mini pyramids or tiny fortresses for their toys.
Create a portable play station for easier post-play cleanup. Fill a plastic rolling crate, wheelbarrow, or wagon with dirt, add some water, and turn your kids loose. When they're done, simply wheel the muck to a suitable dumping spot.
Toy cars, dinosaurs, and play dishes can all withstand a little grit. They're also fun to wash up. Fill one small tub with mud and another with soapy water, so your child can take her toys from messy to shiny and back again.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.