By: Michele Slates, OTA/L
Think back to your childhood memories. Do they include lazy summer days playing outside or inside watching TV or playing video games? If your memories include playing outside and more importantly, in the dirt or at least getting dirty, consider yourself lucky.
I recently gave an informal survey to a class of 18 first graders. I posed the question “Would you rather?” and gave the following options for response: read a book, plant a flower in the garden, use electronics (ipad or video game), play in the dirt or jump in a mud puddle. I also asked if the student is a boy or girl — 78% responded to use electronics (8 boys and 6 girls), 11% responded to read a book (1 girl and 1 boy), and 11% responded to plant a flower in the garden (2 girls).
Before conducting the survey, I could have guessed the outcome. Still it made me sad to think the majority of the current generation may not know how fun it is to play in the dirt.
There are certainly more benefits from playing in the dirt than just fun; it requires being outside. Getting outside gives a healthy dose of Vitamin D and the exposure stimulates our immune system. Mycobacterium vaccae is an unseen bacteria found outside.
When we are outside, we breathe it in and are exposed to it when playing in the dirt. Serotonin levels increase which helps with better mood, sense of calm and less anxiety.
Dirt is also a good source of minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium. These are absorbed through the skin. Dirt and mud have also been linked to reducing allergies and asthma. Exposure to dirt requires our immune system to get engaged and fight off germs. Our society has become too “clean” with using hand sanitizers. Obviously if there is an open wound or compromised immunity you would want to take appropriate precautions.
Unstructured outdoor play creates freedom from daily schedules. It gives a chance to connect with nature and build a sense of calmness. Open-ended play allows children to be creative. What is more creative than using something not intended for its original purpose? Mud paintings may not be interesting to an adult, but a child will have lots of fun making one.
Playing in the dirt or mud promotes a rich sensory experience. Sensory play builds nerve
connections in the brain pathways. All of the senses are engaged when playing in the dirt or mud. The feeling and sound of mud squishing through fingers or being plopped into a bucket. The smell of dirt after rain or when water is added. The distinguishable visual details of grass, dirt and mud. Sensory exposure creates memories. How does the dirt or mud feel, smell, look, sound and yes maybe even taste?
If playing in the dirt is a new activity, a child may be adverse to it and not want to engage. Here are a few ways to get a child comfortable with playing in the dirt. Put a little dirt in a small container, hide colorful glass jewels and have the child find them. Play with a toy car in the dirt or even push a seed into the dirt. As the child gets more comfortable with playing or touching the dirt, increase the area of play and add more toys and tools.
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning can be incorporated into dirt or mud play. This helps to develop problem-solving skills. Science – discover what makes up dirt. Technology – used to learn about different types of dirt in specific locations. Engineering – design a super cool race track for a toy car. Math – guess how many scoops of soil it takes to fill a bucket.
Fine and gross motor skills are necessary to play in the dirt or mud. A child needs finger strength to hold a bucket and shovel. A precise pincer grasp is needed to pick up a worm from the dirt. Stomping and splashing in mud puddles requires strong leg muscles and the ability to jump.
Is your interest peaked and are you excited to foster your child’s dirt or mud play? Here are some suggestions for building your own backyard dirt or mud pit. The most important “ingredient” is the dirt.
Look for soil with no added fertilizers or chemicals. It can be purchased at your local garden store. Locate your pit in a shady spot because your child may spend a lot of time playing in it. Also, have a water source nearby to make more mud and to clean up after playing. You can build a dirt or mud pit right in your yard or place it in a large plastic tote or wheelbarrow.
Next, add the toys or tools for playing. The possibilities are endless: watering cans, kitchen tools, plastic bowls/cups, measuring cups/spoons, toy cars, rocks, colorful glass jewels, seashells, sticks, leaves, kid-sized shovels and rakes. Make sure the tools and toys are unbreakable, can withstand the weather and are age appropriate for your child.
There are so many benefits from playing in the dirt or mud. They certainly outweigh using technology. A huge dirt or mud pit may not be an option for your family. How about having your child help with planting flowers or a small garden? The memories created will last a lifetime. Go outside and get dirty.