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."
May 2019 research from the University of Colorado Boulder, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, supports these claims. Scientists discovered an anti-inflammatory fat that supposedly relieves stress. The fat, Mycobacterium vaccae, is found in soil-dwelling bacterium. "The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," said senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry in the report. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
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.