Why Kids Don’t Like Getting Dirty Anymore, and Why It’s a Problem

“Get it off! Get it off!” The five-year-old girl screams at the top of her lungs. I look in her direction, expecting something horrid on her—like a snake or spider of hideous proportions. On the contrary, she has glue on her fingers. Just a tiny bit of glue coats her middle and ring finger on one hand, something most people wouldn’t even react to. “Okay,” I begin to speak after the initial shock of her sudden outburst subsides. “Let me help you.” I work quickly to help her clean her fingers with a wet rag. The girl smiles and her breathing starts to slow. I take a deep breath myself. We may have just avoided a total meltdown.

Though it seems rare, some kids just don’t like to get messy. They can’t stand glue, food, or dirt on their fingers. They tend to overreact when they have messy fingers or a messy face. This is becoming more common in recent years according to many veteran preschool and elementary teachers. Why? Why are growing numbers of kids averse to getting dirty? One reason is they aren’t playing outdoors as much as years past.

When you ask today’s adults how much time they spent outdoors on a daily basis as a child, the average response is about 4-5 hours. Research shows that today’s children are only getting a fraction of this time.

One-third of children ages 5 to 12 years spend less than 30 minutes per day outdoors.

This is a significant decline in the amount of outdoor play over the past four decades. Anytime you change a child’s daily environment that drastically, you are bound to affect child development. Children’s decreased tolerance to getting dirty is just one side effect of less outdoor play for children.

Touching substances like dirt and glue is a form of “light touch.” This is a skin sensation that a child feels when an object or substance lightly comes into contact with their skin. Some children find this sensory experience aversive and uncomfortable; hence, the reason for outbursts. Children can start to tolerate getting dirty when they receive plenty of firm and consistent pressure (proprioceptive input) in their joints and muscles at the same time as experiencing the light touch. Digging in the dirt provides great feedback and resistance to the joints and muscles. This actually helps override the yucky feelings of light touch that playing in the dirt provides for children.

It’s time to hit the beach and the park, play in mud puddles, or create a sand area at home for your kids. Fear of messy experiences can become an obstacle for kids both in and outside of the classroom. While in class, fear of sticky hands may prevent a child from participating fully in craft activities and other learning experiences that involve glue or other substances. Outside of school, these fears can prevent children from playing outdoors, something children desperately need in order to develop a healthy body and mind. We need to allow ample opportunities for children to play outdoors from a very early age—especially in the dirt.

For more information on how children’s sensory and motor skills depend on outdoor play, check out Balanced and Barefoot.

Angela J. Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook—an award-winning developmental and nature-based program that has gained international popularity. She is author of Balanced and Barefoot.

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