A Play-Date in the Mud and Snow

Recently my daughter (and I as well) had a short after-school play-date with some of her school friends and siblings.  We met, donned boots and gloves, and set the kiddos off to play in the snow.  However, like most children exposed to unstructured play, they found mud, dried up grass, and sticks.  A few of us tried to encourage them to stay in the snow in a grand effort to keep our cars and strollers clean and reduce our own laundry chores later.  Needless to say, the girls won and we watched them build a snowy, muddy, grassy “nest” for some bird they imagined needed their habitat building skills.  We all know the benefit to outdoor play for children, but what about that dirty ol’ mud?  Spring is coming, despite the snowy weather we’ve been having, and mud will be the result.  Should we try to keep our houses, cars, and kids clean to avoid the extra laundry and chores?  As the only one on THAT committee in my house, my first response is to contain the mess.  But I know that the benefits for my kids outweigh the late night laundry folding and the muddy car rug.  Playing in the dirt and outside for children:

  • exposes and primes the immune system reducing likelihood of allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases as adults
  • lowers stress levels in children allowing them to be, well, kids
  • exposes children (and their parents, too) to much needed Vitamin D via sunlight
  • and allows the child to explore and experiment with the natural world supplying the structure (giving us parents a break).

Back in the 80’s (am I dating myself?) the Hygiene Hypothesis came out explaining how rearing children in a too clean (or super sanitary) environment was actually unhealthy.  So with all the antibacterial products on the market, how can we come to grips with our fear of the “germs” (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc) that exist in the natural world, the muddy dirt?  How can we become more comfortable with the unknown brown stuff that the kids just want to play in?  I suggest making friends with it.  By that I mean learn a bit about the good in dirt.  One particular friend is Mycobacterium vaccae.

Mycobaterium vaccae is a bacterium commonly found in the dirt.  One scientific investigation showed that exposure to this bacterium stimulated the production of serotonin in the brain – helping to enhance the feeling of well-being and happiness.  Maybe that’s why we enjoy gardening and kids love to build mud pies!  Another study found that mice fed a live culture of M. vaccae were able to navigate through their mazes faster and showing fewer anxiety behaviors.  Another reason to have outdoor recess!

I am hoping to post more about our friends in the dirt over the next few months helping us become more comfortable with playing in the dirt.  SO, let’s get outside and shed the cabin fever with some good, fun, outdoor playtime.  Even though you may not find much mud out there today, it is waiting for us under the snow and we should be ready to play in it!


American Society for Microbiology (2010, May 25). Can bacteria make you smarter?. ScienceDaily. Access online at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100524143416.htm Retrieved February 17, 2013

Lowry, C, et al., “Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior,” Neuroscience (2007), doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067

National Wildlife Federation “The Dirt on Dirt – How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids” (2012)  Access online at: http://www.nwf.org/Be-Out-There/Why-Be-Out-There/Benefits/The-Dirt-on-Dirt.aspx Retrieved February 17, 2013