For generations, parents have understood that playing outdoors is good for kids. Grandparents know that fresh air is good for a fussy baby. There’s even folk wisdom that says every person should eat a peck of dirt before they die! Science is now catching up with common sense as study after study shows just how beneficial nature is for us physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. It is worth taking a closer look at that peck of dirt…

The book “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World”, by Richard Louv, shares current research on how dirt could be good for kids in some not-so-obvious ways. Louv writes: “A study conducted by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, has found that a bacterium given to mice helped them navigate a maze twice as fast. The bacterium in question is Mycobacterium vaccae, a natural soil bacterium commonly ingested or inhaled when people spend time in nature. When the mice were tested after three weeks’ rest, the benefit was no longer statistically significant, but, Matthews said, the research suggests that M. vaccae may play a role in learning in mammals.” 

So playing in “good, old-fashioned dirt” is likely doing more good for kids than meets the eye. The sad thing is many children today are cut off from nature, even from the simple childhood tradition of playing outside. As children, many of us spent good chunks of time in the back-yard collecting bugs and making mud-pies. Kids today live fast-paced, highly-structured lives with very little free-time to play outside. The chance to ‘unplug’ and fully engage all the senses is a rare experience for most modern kids, and yet nothing provides a better setting for learning and developing than the natural environment.

Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of the nature-based development program TimberNook, links outdoor play to the development of a healthy sensory system: “The brain needs nutrition but it also needs movement in order to function properly. Being outdoors just in general is therapeutic. When you listen to birds tweeting outside it actually helps orient your body to space because you hear a sound - a tweet - on one side of your body and then you hear a tweet following on the other side, and it helps you with spatial awareness. We were born to be outside and now we separate ourselves and we’re telling kids to sit still. It’s just not normal. We keep questioning it, but it’s just the way we were made.”

The reality is, it's hard to get kids outside. It can feel like there aren't enough hours in the day to fit it in. Yet, there is mounting evidence to encourage parents to make it a priority. Nature could be a potent antidote to many of our problems. 

This article was originally published in Natural Awakenings magazine:

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