The exchange and his play/work in the digging patch got me thinking about words and how we use them, stick and sticky, dirt and dirty. Sticks aren't necessarily sticky and dirt isn't usually dirty, not in the sense we use the word. However words, especially generalised terms like dirty, can have a profound effect on how children learn to regard things. For instance we commonly use the term dirt to describe what is in fact soil.
Soil (that has not been contaminated), is 45% minerals (sand, silt, clay), 25% water, 25% air, and 5% organic material, both live (bacterium, worms, ants etc.) and dead (leaves, grass, bacterium, worms, ants etc.). Ah ha.... I hear you say, bacteria are bad, everyone knows that. Not necessarily. There are about two thousand species of bacteria identified, however the ones generally found in (uncontaminated) soil primarily assit in the decomposition process helping release carbon dioxide and essential nutrients into the air and soil. Bacteria found in soil can actually have an antidepressant effect and early exposure is thought to be beneficial in helping build resistance to allergies and immune related diseases.
When children are allowed to interact with their natural environment (or in generalised parlance "get dirty") they're learning, discovering and experiencing more than could ever be contained in a structured lesson.
And yes, soil that is or has become contaminated can contain pathogenic or " harmful" bacteria. These can be dealt with by:
- Ensuring that the play area is free of contaminants. In centres where I design a playground and a digging patch or sandpit are included, my specifications for construction and fill are respectively, free draining and clean. Maintenance of either should be regular, and is quick and easy, details about the current urban fears (and their remedies) can be found here, Toxoplasmosis, Meliodosis and Silicosis.
- Ensuring that the children follow a routine for cleaning themselves (simple hand washing) before they eat,
- Ensuring that if a child is sick, wherein their immune system is compromised, they refrain from playing in any potentially hazardous environments (see point one) until they are healthy again and then ensuring that you and they follow a clean routine (see point two) after play.
- In respect to children actually getting dirt on them, don't dress them in designer togs that you're going to worry may get stained or provide a change of clothes and a plastic bag for the used items,
- Babies can, do and will place items in their mouths, they're exploring the taste, smell and tactile sensations. If you're worried about them doing this in a natural environment - supervise them.
All in all, if you provide a safe natural environment for children to play in and explore, adequate unobtrusive supervision of their play and remedial hygiene routines you can be assured that the benefits of their play will always outweigh any perceived risks.
“People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.”
Plato, 428 BC-348 BC