“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
– Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard’s Egg
Springtime is on the horizon. It was 70 degrees yesterday, and I’m a little giddy with the thought of getting outside and digging in the dirt. My six-year-old already has her bug catchers out and has been honing her rolly polly catching techniques. She reminds me a little of a water diviner, she’s that intent and focused on coaxing the little critters out of their hiding places.
She was four when she discovered rolly pollies, and I was skeptical of the benefits of playing in the dirt. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I’ve learned that it’s important to nurture her curiosity and passion. It doesn’t hurt that it gives me an hour of peace and quiet too.
That said, I’m curious about what folks have to say on the subject, so I googled “is dirt good for kids” and Google kindly served up 54,000,000 results. The top one was a WebMD article that explores the hygiene hypothesis. I’m simplifying it a bit, but it’s a theory that claims you are helping, as opposed to harming, your kids when you expose them to germs at a young age.
I’m not sure I’m interested in buying what Northwestern professor Thom McDade is serving when his team suggests that, “children who were exposed to more animal feces and had more cases of diarrhea before age 2 had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood.” I can’t see myself becoming a proponent of scat play (although I can envision an SNL skit about it). But I might encourage my kids to play in the dirt more this year and worry less about obsessive hand-washing.
I like the hygiene hypothesis for a few reasons. First, it lets my kids be kids, and do all the cooky things I did when I was their age (maybe not everything–like the time I ate the tip of a used match or the time my older brother made me eat petrified dog poo). Second, it allows me to relax a little as a parent. Hypervigilance is exhausting. Lastly, it’s fun and stokes the fires of curiosity and learning inside my kiddos heads and hearts.