Play to thrive! How toddlers can play dirty and build their immunity

Playing In The Dirt

Over-cleaning means toddlers don't get enough exposure to bacteria and germs. Here's what you can do.


Fancy a mud pie, mummy? Or some dirty digger action, daddy? Put away those wet wipes, parents, and relax! Dirt can actually be good for toddlers and help build their immune systems – not to mention all the grotty, fun and developmental benefits of play.

In fact, according to Dr Ginni Mansberg, GP, author and resident doctor on Sunrise, exposing little ones to dirt, bacteria and germs could be very beneficial. "The hygiene hypothesis theorises that over time western civilisation has become much cleaner and focused on removing harmful bacteria from our environment," explains Dr Mansberg. "And, as a consequence of this over cleaning, we are not exposing children to enough dirt, grime and germs at an early age to get a well-functioning immune system going - and this is the cause of allergies and immune system deficiencies. These children's' supercharged immune systems are fighting dust, grass or pollen, resulting in asthma attacks and developing eczema."

It's this theory, says Dr Mansberg, that triggered a whole load of scientific research around bacteria, gut health, genome mapping and immunity. "Now, with scientific research, there's a growing belief that exposure to different strains of bacteria could be beneficial to the immune system."

That exposure to bacteria includes soil, dirt, trees and other natural outdoor products - all available in your backyard or local park! "Bacteria is found in all kinds of places, including backyard soil and dirt!" says Dr Mansberg. "In fact, there's a growing fascination with soil based organisms (SBOs) – you can even buy this soil bacteria in capsule form now!"

"It's just a theory at this stage, but we think that eating dirt, for example, allows us to eat those bacteria and introduce them to our gut," explains Dr Mansberg.

Don't just bake your immunity-building dirt pie or buy your capsules just yet, though!

"That's not to say your child should grab handfuls of dirt and eat it – soil contaminants like lead and other chemicals pose a health risk and aren't good for children to eat. But certainly a lack of exposure to germs may be stopping our children from developing access to important bacteria in their gut."

Tips for playing with dirt


If dirty nails makes you reach for the disinfectant or you can't begin to imagine how to initiate play, try these tips!

Wet-weather-proof plan. Rainy outside? Try play doh instead! "Kids love to mix different colours together," says Dr Kimberley O'Brien, Principal Child Psychologist at Quirky Kid Clinic. "And they will still reap the benefits of the sensory experience of squishing the doh between their fingers and moulding shapes."

Set prompts and observe. "Have a wet and dry area," suggests Dr O'Brien. "What you'll typically find is the kids want to take a cup of water and tip it straight into the dry ingredients! It's about mixing and experimenting. According to the literature, little ones develop a sense of mastery when they're problem solving or testing new limits (Little & Wyver, 2008). "Observing a child at play is an opportunity to better understand how they think, find solutions and manage a range of emotions."

Be unpredictable. If the mud pies are 'tasting' a little bland, introduce a surprise element. "Sprinkle on some flower petals or garnish with a seed pod, then see what your toddler contributes," suggests Dr O'Brien. "Adding incremental layers of complexity to your role play will keep you and your toddler interested for longer, providing more time for relationship building. Children are typically more compliant after an extended period of play."

Benefits to dirt play

There are other benefits to dirt play, including imaginary, creative, sensory and experimental play, which help toddler's cognitive, physical and well-being development. Here's a few more reasons to let your little one have fun in the dirt!

It's great for sensory play. "Sensory play is not so much about them putting the dirt in their mouth – it's more about learning to feel comfortable squishing and squashing different textures," explains Dr O'Brien. "Children that aren't comfortable with different sensations can become sensory avoidant – they might meltdown when a clothing tag rubs against their skin, or perhaps avoid certain foods because of their texture. Exposing children to sensory play increases their capacity to integrate with different textures and a range of environments, including a crowded school assembly. Sensory play can also increase a child's willingness to try a variety of fruit, vegetables and proteins as they become more familiar with a range of textures, taste and smells."

Mother Nature just happens to be the Queen of Texture. "There are so many textures when it comes to playing outdoors – dirt, rocks, sand, leaves, flowers and water to name a few," adds Dr O'Brien. "Encourage children to compare the difference between surfaces, such as sandstone, bark and moss."

Another bonus is the calming effect sensory play offers. "Sensory play can facilitate relaxation," says Dr O'Brien. "In the clinic, we offer young clients a ball of play doh as they come into the room to help them overcome any nervousness. Other children bury their fingers deep in a tray of sand. Only after they've settled will they start talking about their feelings or experiences at home or school." Similarly, Dr O'Brien says gardening is sensory play for adults!

It'll kick start imaginative play. Encourage your little one to draw shapes in the dirt with their fingers, mould shapes with their hands, invent formulas like a scientist, make desserts and build environments! See what creative passions they naturally want to pursue with a little outdoor dirt action and prompting. Role plays are often fun for both parent and child. "Make mud pies and share the feast for teddy and friends. Research shows role plays help to introduce the concept of representation to children. Toddlers who can readily manipulate symbols in creative play are more likely to accept and use the symbols associated with reading, writing and mathematics."

It's liberating! Parents are always carrying around wipes and clothes and if there's dirt on their little one's face, they'll promptly wipe it off. But you needn't bother. "I'm not a fan of hand sanitizer on children – it's an unnecessary chemical, in my opinion," says Dr O'Brien. "Of course parents should encourage hand-washing before meals, but most children enjoy being given the space and time to get dirty in the garden. Research suggests parental anxiety can be transferred to children through learned behaviour, if it is not managed appropriately. Children who learn to explore their environment independently are more likely to develop a secure attachment to their parent or primary carer. So, let toddlers roam free in a safe setting, rather than chasing them with baby wipes and warning them about the dangers of dirt."

Aptamil Toddler have not influenced the content of this article.