I spent four hours at a farm the other day with my three-year-old daughter, Chloe.
"What the heck did you guys do there for four hours?" my husband wondered later that night.
Although we ate a picnic lunch and fed the animals for a little while, Chloe spent most of her time digging in the wide expanse of sand that’s part of the farm’s small playground.
If Chloe could somehow get paid for digging in the dirt and sand, she’d be a very rich kid. She absolutely loves it. During the spring and summer there are few things she’d rather be doing. Sure, we go to museums, read books, and create art projects—all of those cognitively stimulating things that you’re supposed to do with your kids—but once warm weather arrives, Chloe also spends a fair amount of time just playing in the dirt, digging holes, making mountains, and finding worms.
And research shows that she might actually be healthier for it. An article in the journal Social Science and Medicine hypothesizes that society’s tendency to keep little girls cleaner than boys may explain why adult women have a higher rate of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders than adult men.
The article draws upon the “hygiene hypothesis” which says that the decreased exposure to certain bacteria and parasitic worms in industrialized nations is linked to an increased rate of asthma and allergies. The article’s author takes this hypothesis a step further by applying it to gender, telling NPR that girls, especially those under the age of five, are more likely to wear dresses and other clothing that restricts messy play. Girls also tend to be more closely supervised in their play than boys and are more often discouraged from getting dirty. The author theorizes that girls’ lack of exposure to the germs that are in dirt can actually prevent them from building the same kind of immunities that boys develop.
No matter what science says, I don’t want Chloe to eat dirt. But sometimes, I do have to remind myself not to discourage her from getting dirty while she’s playing outside. Dirt can be scrubbed from under fingernails and washed out of pants. And even beyond the possible autoimmune benefits of being outside, sometimes it’s nice for Chloe just have unstructured time to play, explore, dig, and discover, to learn what’s living under a rock or whether she can find a four-leaf clover in the grass. In other words, to give her time to be a kid.
Photo: Burp Hammie