From the moment you laid eyes on those pink little cheeks, you’ve probably slept with one eye open. You were overjoyed when she started crawling, and a week later, you were constantly at her back fearing she’d injure herself. And by the time she started walking and exploring her home, you were probably a bundle of nerves.
Toddlers have a natural tendency to touch dirty things and put them in their mouth. It’s their way of exploring the world around them. So, when your child loves to get her hands dirty, you might think it spells trouble. But don’t fret. Dirt isn’t as bad as you’d think it is for your child. Frolicking in the mud, apparently, not only helps children develop better immunity, but also improves their observation skills, instincts, and creativity.
According to psychologists, leaving children to their own devices on a playground may just be the best thing you ever do. They find that toddlers who are given the freedom to explore–within reasonable limits–learn to creatively interact with the environment. Says Akila Sadasivan, a child neuropsychologist, “Playing in dirt helps stimulate creative thinking in children. They indulge in imaginary play with sand, twigs, rocks, and mud, all the while improving their immunity. Using hands this way also improves motor development, as playing with different textures stimulates nerve endings in the palms.”
Parents rarely find it easy to let their little ones get dirty. Some even prefer sterilising everything around their children, including their homes! Mud in the child’s mouth is probably one of their top worries, right below cuts, scrapes and bruises. But according to Gever Tulley, founder of California-based Tinkering School, a summer programme for experiential learning, parents should let their children learn unconventionally too, even if it means they get “scraped, bruised and bloody.” In his Ted Talk 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, he speaks about how children can actually learn about safety by handling things we consider hazardous–fire, knife, electrical appliances and the like. Naturally, most parents might think that’s outrageous, but Tulley does have a point. How will children ever deal with these things–in case of emergencies–if they’ve never been taught the safe way to handle them?
“If children have successful interactions with their toy environment, they interpret those experiences as having mastered the toys. (…) As children continue to grow, mastery over non-physical items becomes a new task.”
We don’t have to agree with Tulley on letting kids handle hazardous things, but allowing children to play with mud is certainly within the milieu of experiential learning. It’s probably why sometimes even the fussiest parents try their best to let their children get dirty. After all, they know it’s good for them. Take Soujanya Balaji for instance. Being a mother of two naughty children, she believes constant vigilance is necessary. Says she, “I get very tensed when they play with mud and dirt. But I know unstructured playtime on the playground is very good for their immunity and development. So, I try and give them that leeway once in a while.”
Soujanya is indeed right about the development. Kids begin to cultivate a sense of mastery when left free in the playground. Child and adult mental health professional Paul E Starling, who has researched about the impact of unstructured playtime on children, writes in a study: “If children have successful interactions with their toy environment, they interpret those experiences as having mastered the toys. (…) As children continue to grow, mastery over non-physical items becomes a new task. Children begin to master experiences.” He further points out in the study that similar to the way adults ruminate and repeat cognitions and language that have been traumatic, children work out experiences through play until a level of cognitive comfort has been reached.
As much as nature has a say in who we turn out to be, nurture does too. Those of us who rarely ever played outdoors as kids, or with other children, might find socialising uncomfortable. Child psychologist Mary Chelladurai agrees that free play, especially in natural environment, is one of the deciding factors in the kind of adults children grow up to be. She explains, “How kids explore their surroundings can have a direct impact on their adulthood. It can influence their social confidence to interact with peers as adults.”
When left to toy with dirt and other objects in a natural environment, kids’ imagination is more active, their motor skills sharper, and social skills smarter.
Clearly, it’s very important that children get enough playtime outdoors. But given the concrete jungles many of us live in these days, finding that space might be a real concern. Add technology and sedentary lifestyle to the equation and what you get is children’s playtime limited to indoor games and gadgets. Biju Ebenezer, a father of two, confesses that he too has chosen to distract them with gadgets to try and get some work done. However, he ensures he takes them outdoors regularly too. Naturally, he’s seen a remarkable difference in how they behave on the playground. He says, “I’ve seen my kids are far more proactive there. They might dig a hole in the mud one minute, and go up and down on the gates the next. While I sure keep an eye on them, I don’t fuss over them. I think they learn better that way.”
Many parents can probably relate to Biju’s observations. They notice how differently their children tend to behave in an open playground, as opposed to a restricted environment. When left to toy with dirt and other objects like wrappers, metal pieces, or plastic bits in a natural environment, kids’ imagination is more active, their motor skills sharper, and social skills smarter.
So, the next time you see mud stains on your child’s clothes–or worse, mouth–don’t panic. While you might be worried, all you need to do is wait until the next day. As long as she’s okay, you’ve nothing to fear. And as an adult, you might forget that children are more resilient than you, that they heal faster than you. So a little mud, dirt, and grime along the way certainly won’t harm your little one. For all you know, the castle your child builds with clay today, might just turn out to be a harbinger of her bright tomorrow.