A recent study by US scientists involving mice found that raising the creatures in a sterile, germ-free environment increased the numbers of invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) in them, specifically in their colons and lungs. This translates as them having the mouse versions of bowel cancer and asthma as a result of growing up shielded from germs.
People have been talking for a few years about the effects of our increasingly sterilised environments. Cleaning products, plumbing, hygiene are big sellers today. Watch TV, particularly during programmes seemingly aimed at parents and families, and you’ll see lots of ads for hygiene products such as anti-bacterial spray for high chairs, hand soap that you don’t have to touch and washing powders that claim to sterilise your clothes.
These products pray on the fears of us loving parents that our children will ingest some germs and get horribly ill from it, but there has been some backlash from people who believe that these germs will not unduly harm children and actually, not exposing our kids to them could actually cause long term problems.
The “hygiene hypothesis” proposes that when children are developing, being exposed to bacteria and other microbes teaches their immune systems to be resistant – it’s a “know your enemy” kind of situation - only by encountering the germs that we can know how to fight them.
Children increasingly spend more time indoors, with the amount of entertaining attractions inside keeping them on the sofa, and with more families being raised in urban environments with few open, grassy spaces. This means that in addition to sanitised environments the children are frolicking around in mud less, breathing in less fresh air filled with oxygen but also microbes and all sorts of unidentified floaty things.
Letting your children play outside alone, letting them get filthy and dirty, letting them make a mess in the kitchen are great not just for their immune system but for their development in general. It teaches them about risk, independence, what their bodies are capable of. It teaches them that mud tastes disgusting, and that spilling something isn’t the end of the world. It also allows them to connect with nature, how to explore their surroundings, be creative and use their imaginations. Telling children not to play and make a mess, wiping up everything they come into contact with and keeping them inside won’t allow them to be creative and make decisions for themselves, and it will mean they miss out on a lot of vital fun!
This post was written by Kat for Creative Play, creators of playground equipment for schools, parks and homes