Which is better for toddler/pre-schooler's health? To let them get dirty (play as they will in sand, mud, dust, seawater) and wash them appropriately or try to keep them clean? What impacts do these two different approaches have on children's health? Is there trustworthy research which proves one way is better than other for long-term health?

This question is not about basic hygiene, like washing hands before eating, which is of course necessary; it's about a general parenting approach to our children's level of dirtyness

  • Are you looking for scientific research? Or just opinions? Or psychological evaluation? I think this question is probably "opinion-based" without some additional clarity in that regard (as to what you're going at).
    – Joe
    Jul 1, 2015 at 15:18
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    If you search for "allergies and dirty kid" you will find a lot of research that being dirty is good... to a extent!
    – the_lotus
    Jul 2, 2015 at 13:43
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    In terms of physical health, and disease, it's unlikely either approach will have a significant effect, though extremes to either degree, like letting the kid play in a leper colony or keeping him trapped in a bubble, are not good for him. However, in terms of emotional growth I think it's better to allow, and encourage, a child to explore the world on his own terms and not be afraid to explore it. This will generally lead to getting a little dirty. It's less that he should be dirty, as allowing him to grow and learn means letting him be allowed to get dirty.
    – dsollen
    Jul 6, 2015 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


Ask yourself: How do children experience their world? Most languages have words like "grasp", that mean to understand something and to touch it.

Good schools/educators try to incorporate as many sensory channels and as many different ways to teach as possible. In my child's primary school letters and numbers are taught by having the children walk the pattern, draw them into sand, form them out of clay or pipe cleaners and only finally writing them. For something as simple as a '5'.

Now take an even younger child - how do you think they can learn about simple thinks like warm, cold, soft, hard wet, dry, sweetly scented or stinky? There is no hands-off method of understanding or explaining snow, but so easy to grasp when you feel the cold snow melt in your hand, see it glistening in the sun or caught snowflakes with your mouth.

And yes, this means getting your hands (and feet, face, clothes ...) dirty from time to time. That's why we have play clothes and water & soap for afterwards.

You ask for health impact.
In my opinion the impact of getting dirty on a child's mental wellbeing and ability to learn about his world can't be valued high enough. If you add to this that there are various studies that claim that getting dirty is good for your imune system and can reduce the risk of allergies (keyword "hygiene hypothesis") and that being active and outside (later known as "exercise" or "fitness" for adults) is good for your health too, I'm happy to do an extra load of laundry or two.

And if you need more inspiration, watch the kids in this video - playing in a forest kindergarten.

  • signed up purely to entirely agree with this answer! give an upvote, because it is a much more eloquently version of what was in my head when I read the question. But mostly because of the laugh that 'later known as "exercise"' produced
    – Michael B
    Jul 1, 2015 at 14:21
  • I was once a children's teacher in a church and because they were in their sunday best and some had fussy parents, I did my best to make sure they never got dirty or were in a situation where they could get hurt beyond a papercut. They were not book learners ; they did not learn very much in my class.
    – rlb.usa
    Jul 1, 2015 at 21:44

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