Earlier this year, a long-ago neighbor tracked down our family on behalf of her parents, who hadn’t seen my folks in more than 40 years. She searched for my dad through his former employer (not knowing he had passed away in 1982), and ended up reaching one of my brothers several steps later. Soon after, Marianne and I reconnected via Facebook.
Marianne and I lived near each other for about two years, starting when we were less than three years old. So, my memories of our interactions are sparse, at best. However, when we were “chatting” via Facebook’s instant messenger last month, she relayed her mom’s assertion that we were soul-mates who “loved getting dirty.”
I do recall that the lot next to our home was under construction, and Marianne, two neighbor boys and I loved running up and rolling down a huge mound of dirt that seemed to stand on that lot for months. (In truth, the mound probably wasn’t taller than my mother’s head, and most likely disappeared after a week or so.)
At any rate, it was a simpler, easier time, and our moms did allow us to roam the neighborhood unsupervised, and to play in that pile or dirt, which probably was quite muddy at times.
That’s not something you often hear girls doing today. I know that in my own family, while my boys spent hours playing in the sandbox, digging for worms in the yard, making mud-pies and building sandcastles at the beach, my daughter kept her hands clean. (However, the above photo proves that she at least placed her feet in dirt.)
Since then, the boys enjoyed outdoor sports such as running, biking, football, baseball and lacrosse, in which they certainly came in contact with dirt, but Caroline has preferred spending time in dance studios and choir rehearsal rooms.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, while all my children are very healthy, my girl does get sick a bit more often than the three boys do.
After chatting with Marianne, I wondered if it’s true that girls don’t get as dirty today, and if so, what impact that has had.
So, I Googled “Kids playing in dirt,” and came up with several interesting facts about dirt-play and its connection to good health.
- “There is some thought that getting exposed to things, even parasites and different microbial elements in the dirt, might actually improve the overall immunity that a child develops,” states Dr. Aoi Mizushima of Providence Medical Group Family Practice in Portland, OR.
- Mary Ruebush PhD, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, counsels that our immune systems—like our other muscles—must be exercised so they can develop and become strong enough to fight illness and disease. So, when a child is exposed to dirt, he or she actually is strengthening the immune system. Ruebush writes that “not only does [eating dirt] allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses… but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”
- Sharyn Clough, a researcher at Oregon State University, found that women who are too clean have higher rates of allergies and other autoimmune disorders.
- A recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, found that Amish children who were raised on farms were less likely to develop allergies and asthma than their peers.
The current assumption is that some degree of dirt-play does promote good health.
In my Google search, I found a wonderful blog post by Katie Fox, former editor of Simple Organic, who extolled the virtues of playing outdoors, in less-than-sterile environments. She noted that playing in dirt:
- Is good for your brain. Bacteria found in soil can activate neurons that produce serotonin, which is a natural anti-depressant.
- Can boost kids’ immune systems. Research shows that early exposure to the microbes and bacteria in dirt help prevent disease.
- Helps stave off ADD, depression and obesity. A documented disorder, “Nature-deficit disorder,” results from not playing outside enough.
- Lowers blood pressure and stress, and thus leads to happiness. Children who play outside laugh more, so they are less stressed and more happy.
- Increases ambition. Children who play outside are more adventurous, more self-motivated and better able to understand and assess risk.
Taking it one step further, several researchers claim that our current obsession with cleanliness has led to an increase in allergies and other autoimmune disorders.
“The recent entry of products containing antibacterial agents into healthy households has escalated from a few dozen products in the mid-1990s to more than 700 today,” notes Dr. Stuart B. Levy, of the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Dr. Levy explains that antibacterial products were created for medical purposes, to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms among patients in medical offices and hospitals. Scientists worry that the over-use of these products in households helps make bacteria cross-resistant to antibiotics.
If these anti-bacterial agents “alter a person’s microflora, they may negatively affect the normal maturation of the T helper cell response…[and] lead to a greater chance of allergies in children,” Dr. Levy continues.
My mom used to say that by not keeping the house spick-and-span, she helped make us healthier. In fact, the six of us rarely missed school and are all, by and large, healthy adults (my oldest brother died of lung cancer, but that’s another story).
I suspect the same is true for Marianne.
So, let’s give ourselves, our young girls and our granddaughters (God willing we should have them, and not too soon) permission to get down and get dirty.
–Linda Williams Rorem, 4 March 2013
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- Big, Healthy Farm Family: ‘Dirt Is Our Friend’ (abcnews.go.com)