Let your toddlers get down and dirty with nature

Experts say not allowing children to get dirty and be exposed to certain outdoor germs may actually be hindering their health.

Experts say not allowing children to get dirty and be exposed to certain outdoor germs may actually be hindering their health.

Remember the days of making mud pies and digging for worms? How about rolling down hills and climbing up trees? When you were a kid, no shirt was ever safe from a dirt or grass stain.

Oh my, have times changed.

Today’s kids have very little experience with outside dirt — the mud squished between their fingers have now been replaced by a never-ending supply of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers at the disposal of their doting parents.

The fear that germs will infect their children and cause them to be ill is one that tops the list of every parent, prompting them to take every precaution to make sure it doesn’t happen. But kids are tougher than they’re given credit for.

While parents mean well, not allowing children to get dirty and be exposed to certain outdoor germs may actually be hindering.

Research shows children are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. In fact, kids between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of entertainment media — that’s more than 53 hours a week.

And all the indoor time is impeding the physical and mental health of North American children.

For nearly 60 years, there’s been a belief — known as the “hygiene hypothesis” — that if children aren’t exposed to certain infectious agents, parasites and symbiotic microorganisms (like gut flora and probiotic) it may stunt the development of their immune system, putting kids at risk for asthma, allergies and other immune-related disorders like type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis.

And several studies over the years have been able to support that theory and variations of it.

According to researchers, higher levels of exposure to common bacteria and microbes could help develop the body’s inflammatory systems, which helps the immune system fight infections.

But Dr. Anne Pham-Huy, infectious disease specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said although parents do have a right to worry about certain germs, it’s all about balance.

“We’re not meant to live in a sterile world,” said Pham-Huy.

“I wouldn’t say go eat the dirt, but I would say go play in the dirt. The young child needs to be exposed to different environments to colonize the (bacteria found in their) gut.”

“It’s healthy for children to play outside and there’s no harm in getting dirty,” she added.

“Obviously we don’t want kids to eat things they find in the dirt or not wash their hands because there is the potential for getting sick but it’s common sense — letting kids play and get dirty is completely healthy.”

And more outside time means less likelihood of obesity, myopia and vitamin D deficiency, according to reports.

Then there are the potential mental health benefits.

Did you know there’s a bacteria in soil that triggers the release of serotonin, a chemical responsible for mood balance? That means direct contact with soil could help decrease anxiety and depression and improve cognitive function.

Research also shows stress and anxiety is reduced even further when children are simply in the presence of trees and other outdoor greens.

According to researchers, being outside reduces rumination, a reaction that happens when one becomes sad and can’t stop thinking about what’s causing the sadness.

Simply put, nature doesn’t only make you and your little one healthy, it also makes everyone happy.