Let’s Eat Dirt – It’s Good for You!
When was the last time you let your kids make a mud pie for tea? How often do you rush to wipe them down rather than congratulating them on making a ring of dirt around the bath? In our final post on the theme of #DirtIsGood, a campaign from Persil to encourage the kids to get outside, I look at research that proves messy play is a healthy option, wonder if eating dirt could actually be a good thing, and explore a new app that furnishes parents with some great ideas for turning kids into wild explorers.
Let the kids eat dirt…
I was on Twitter the other day when someone posted that she’d found her kids in the garden eating ants. It was an amusing tweet and we started a short conversation about kids and their fascination with eating bugs. Not as a mealtime option, but a general fun thing to do. And it took me right back to a year in New Zealand where our two toddler boys continually rooted about in the earth, tasting and testing what they found. That year we lived in playgrounds and at campsites. They dug up worms and cycled with butterflies. They rarely wore socks. They foraged for berries and lived in hope of chasing a bunny rabbit. Cam had a toy lamb and we all had a habit of getting stuck in sheep traffic jams (this was New Zealand!) The children were filthy, all the time. And even when we tried to clean them up, camp showers didn’t do an amazing job. We slept outside when it was too hot to put the tent up and even their pyjamas had a look and smell of the field. And it was such a happy time. If they wanted to eat insects, then they did. If they wanted to make a mud pack for their faces, then we joined in. I look back on it and wish we were still there, making a kiwi fruit sandwich on the grass.
Forget fruit– this is much better for you
Insect eating is having a moment right now. It’s becoming trendy to bake with them and Atkins fans will be well aware of the protein content. But apart from a few enthusiasts, parents still tell their kids not to eat worms or go hunting for bugs to put into a pie. Instead we more often top them up with sugar and watch them climb the walls. We don’t let them roll down the grass or kiss the dog or lick a stick or bite into a conker to see if it’s ripe for a game, but let them eat treats, drink fizzy drinks and rot their teeth, benignly encouraging obesity. We let them close the curtains and fight virtual monsters but don’t encourage them to go outdoors to be imaginary superheroes. I sometimes think we’ve lost the plot and some experts agree. By continually warning kids away from getting dirty, or incessantly cleaning them up, we are doing them a dis-service. And breaking their health rather than fixing it.
Here’s the science bit
This isn’t just my gut feeling. According to the book Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World written by two microbiologists, Marie-Claire Arrieta and Brett Finlay there is scientific evidence that our fixation with hygiene and cleanliness is messing with our kids health and natural immune systems. And their gut feeling is more than that – it is based on solid research into the human gut. They argue that dirt is not an enemy but a friend to the human body. Their explanation (put simply here) is that the gut is made up of microbes. Some are in fact enemies, promoting infectious disease. But others are benign, or even helpful – helping us digest our food and keeping our immune system on its toes. When the immune system meets a microbe it learns to tolerate it. But if we aren’t exposing our kids to microbes then their bodies don’t learn to deal with the benign microbes or attack the dangerous ones. And microbes don’t thrive in a hermetically sealed bedroom where hand sanitizer is only a few centimetres away.
The book is an attempt to set the record straight as well as a guide to changing habits. Even at birth parents can do more to ensure their children have the best chance. “Whenever we tell other parents about our work, the questions never cease ‘Do I need to sterilize their bottles every time? What kind of soap should I use? We realised that there are many questions out there about microbes…and a lot of wrong information.” says Brett, in the book’s preface, adding that the first hundred days are critical.
The couple don’t argue that we should ditch all attempts at hygiene, but just lighten up a bit. In their book and in subsequent features like this one by The Guardian they advise we boot our kids out of doors a bit more, letting them run barefoot, touch insects and plants. They suggest getting a family dog and let the kids interact with it properly (including face licking –and that can go both ways!) If you get a dog when the kids are babies then it may help avoid asthma and allergies. If your baby drops a dummy in a field, they suggest you lick it clean for them rather than whipping out the multi pack of baby wipes and gel. Start treating microbes (which you can find in dirt and mud and bugs) as friends not enemies they say. And in turn microbes will help you in the fight to keep your kids healthy.
Let them go wild and explore
It’s one thing to recognise the benefit of dirt but of course it can be another to persuade kids to get out and get dirty. If you’re stuck for ideas on how to tease the kids out of their bedrooms, into the real world and up close with nature then the Wild Explorers app may help. Developed by the Wild Network in a collaboration for the Persil #DirtisGood campaign, Wild Explorers is a handy little app that can help with ideas for things to do, places to visit, activities for different ages. It’s free and available for iOS and Android devices and is safe and simple to use use – you could even let your child explore it for you.
Once it’s downloaded you just have to specify where you’d like to spend time with your little explorers – eg on your doorstep, in the woodlands or by a river. Then, how long? 10 minutes? 2-4 hours? And finally you need to tell it how old your kids are. I specified I’d like to go to a park near us for 2-4 hours. And do you know what was on the first page? Worm charming. A page of brightly coloured instructions showed us how to attract them to the surface. (Vibrations made by patting the ground or banging a drum, or basically pretending to be a mole.) There were then suggestions for sketching measuring and counting their segments before releasing them somewhere dark and damp. The app also suggested a worm charming competition. But sadly, nothing about eating them. Perhaps that’s only available if you click on toddlers! Still we’ve all eaten worms before haven’t we?
Other suggestions for wild explorers
Other suggestions are many and varied; creating a sleeping bag for a millipede, a boat for a wood mouse, an umbrella for a mole by stitching leaves together. Or finding a trail and practising owl vision, opening a bug café, or (my favourite) wearing your socks outside your shoes then bringing them indoors and watching them sprout. There’s also a ‘surprise us’ option in case you can’t choose.
Check out the app, whatever age your kids are. And kick them out of the house in the holidays and at weekends. Mud, microbes and bugs won’t kill them. They may make them happier and healthier. And you’ll get them out of your hair for a while you put your feet up and have a nice piece of fly pie. It’s good for you, right?
Get involved with #DirtisGood
If you’d like to get involved with the Dirt is Good campaign to help get your kids playing out more then why not:
- Check out this practical post: “The Dirty Dozen: 12 Practical Tips to help you get your kids outside“
- Read this post “Dirt is Good: Encouraging Kids to play outdoors“
- Visit DirtisGood.com for ideas on how you can get out today and play with your child.
- Join the #DirtisGood conversation on social media. @PersilUK wants to hear what stops you and the kids from getting outside and how you feel about letting them out to play.
Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you in association with Persil UK to help promote their Dirt is Good campaign. As ever, the experiences, opinions, and ideas about bug eating are all our own.