Some of my fondest memories are of me getting absolutely filthy outdoors. As a kid I was a complete tomboy and one might even call me an escape artist (sorry Mom & Dad) because from the age of three I would always manage to get outside…and dirty. Wading through streams, drawing on rocks, playing in mud, catching and studying creatures, climbing trees till the tops swayed under my weight, or just laying in the grass watching clouds flow by...
This was where I thrived.
I share this so you can understand that even with my childhood, a degree in Environmental Studies, and a decade of work to get more women into leadership in tech and startups, I have also caught myself saying things like: “Honey, watch out for the mud.” or “careful of that puddle” or “my goodness, you look so pretty in that dress.” …and felt myself turn green.
Oh hell. Who’s voice was that?!
I mean, I advise companies on Culture & Diversity - so I KNOW the research on girls and how subtle messaging (and overt) turns them away from the outdoors, exploration, self-reliance, and technology. Son of a… biscuit. Here I am reinforcing this limiting belief to an amazing, curious, fierce little monkey of a girl that I love.
That’s. How. Insidious. Some. Patterns. Are.
Getting dirty is good for kids for a lot of reasons (Those reasons are coming, I promise), but beyond the science of how dirt and nature are good for kids, there’s also a damaging mindset around “clean” that we need to recognize.
For girls, “BEING CLEAN” is interchangeable
with “BEING PRETTY.”
Here's why: When we remind girls to “stay clean” we’re telling them to care about their appearance more than fun, exploration, and discovery. Girls hear “clean” reminders way more often then boys and the little things we say add up because they’re being told in countless, subtle ways in our society that being pretty is more important than being brave, smart, kind, and strong.
That narrative accumulates like rainwater in a bowl: Over time little, insignificant drops fill it to the top. Over time, little comments have far-reaching impacts.
The good news: Clothes wash and awareness is catchy.
Whenever we hear (or say) a “clean/pretty” comment directed at a little girl we adore, we have the chance to re-write that tired, old script to something better — like:
- “What was I thinking? You should TOTALLY pounce in that puddle.”
- Or “Don’t come back inside till your dirty…that way I know you had fun.”
- Or “Yes, that dress is pretty AND what I love most is how clever you are.”
- Or “Let’s go outside and see what kinds of animals and plants we can find.”
- And, you can set the bar by sharing your stories of getting truly filthy and loving it.
That’s how we build buffers to protect the light & curiosity in our girls. That’s how we instill a love for nature & exploration. That’s how we show them “pretty” is far from the most important thing.
I’m hoping you’re with me on this. And, if you’re wondering if I’ve forgotten about those 6 reasons why dirt is good….thank you for your patience. Here they are.
6 REASONS WHY GETTING DIRTY IS GOOD FOR YOUR GIRL’S HEALTH, WELLBEING & SPIRIT:
It Trains The Immune System
Consider dirt and outdoor time a type of training wheels for our immune system. We’ve all heard how anti-bacterial products and over sanitization may actually hurt our kids. One way this happens is because sterilizing environments (and kids) through excessive hygiene significantly decreases their exposure to all kinds of microbes. So, kids in developed nations don’t train the immature immune system on what it can ignore. (Checkout the Hygiene Hypothesis.) It also reduced exposure to anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating bacteria naturally presentThat can lead to all kinds of autoimmune issues, higher sensitivity to colds, and allergies.
Yes: Allergies. More exposure to nature and dirt seems to have a direct correlation to lower allergy levels. Studies show that people who grew up on farms have less allergies. This study of 10,000 people from 14 countries showed that adults raised on farms were 54% less likely to have asthma or hay-fever!
It Does a Brain Good - Seriously!
From a purely scientific standpoint we now know that dirt and nature are full of many good micro-organisms and one of them, Mycobacterium vaccae, actually boost Serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our moods so we feel better, sleep better, and even improves digestion. Turns out we inhale Mycobacterium pretty much anywhere in nature.
Researchers at Sage Colleges in New York used soil bacteria M. vaccae and found Serotonin also stimulates neuron growth in the brain for faster thinking and better focus. Their test subjects (mice, not kids) solved mazes twice as fast and with less anxiety when they had dirt bacteria in their bodies. How cool is that? You have happier kids in a better mood with an increased ability to focus. In the era of ADD, our brains on dirt = good things.
Fun, Adventure, Discovery & Self-reliance
Let’s stop fighting kids instincts! Most of them want to play in dirt because getting dirty is fun. Plus, the great outdoors is full of wonders, textures and smells. Letting them explore & discover is actually a critical kind of Free Play that connects them with nature while building curiosity and self-reliance.
There are many, many studies and papers drawing the link between outdoor free-play increasing resilience, problem-solving, exercise and overall wellbeing. (This paper from Yale "Outside These Walls..." lists quite a few.)
Avoid “Nature Deficit Disorder”
This isn’t a clinical condition but the term was coined by Richard Louv in 2005 in his book "Last Child in the Woods" and encapsulates what a lot of people are seeing. Kids are attached to devices and indoor environments. Far less kids are actively playing in nature and this lack of time is being linked to a range of unpleasant things from obesity to attention disorders and childhood depression.
Turns out dirt and the stuff we accumulate playing outdoors is good for our skin. This study showed that being too clean can dampen the skins ability to heal itself. They found that childhood dirtiness increases exposure to a common bacteria called staphylococci which can reduce inflammation after injury with rashes, cuts and bruises — if it is present on the skin.
Minerals & Nutrients
Ever hear the stories of pregnant women eating dirt? It’s called Pica and kids do it, too. This phenomenon happens because instinctively we know that there are critical minerals (iron, zinc, magnesium) in earth and clay. Many of these are good for growth, skin, motor skills, behavior and cognitive abilities. When we’re short on them, we can actually CRAVE dirt.
Now, I’m not suggesting you feed your kids teaspoons of dirt (seriously, that’s awful), but bare feet, mud-caked hands, and the occasional dirty mouth won’t hurt and will help fill an innate nutritional need.
Fun Fact: At 6 months babies need more Iron and other nutrients but breast milk doesn’t suddenly produce more. This is possibly because babies can get needed minerals from normal exposure to the earth and dirt.
Happy Is More Important Than Clean
Flip the narrative and encourage girls to get good and dirty. Lately, I tell the kids we’re going on a “Mud Hunt” and they love it. We head to the park, roam the creek and come back covered in mud and smiles.
It shows them that I don’t care about the clothes, I care about their joy…and that is something I want them to always remember.
It’s amazing what a little dirt can do.
Getting dirty and regular time outside is one key ingredient in growing healthy kids. So, let your girls go barefoot, encourage them to get dirty, and keep your cool when they eat things off the ground. They’ll be better for it.