I am raising a little naturalist. My youngest daughter has always had a thing for the outdoors. From the very first time we took her camping at about 9 months old, and she ate so much dirt it was coming out of her diapers, to when she was a toddler and picking up every rock, leaf, acorn, stick, and flower in sight, to today when she can name off animal facts like an encyclopedia. This kid just absorbs nature. And she is so smart and happy because of it (no bias there).

For generations, parents have understood that playing outdoors is good for kids. When we were babies, my mom even put us in snowsuits to nap outside during the winter! The fresh air is good for you, she'd always say. Science is now catching up with my mom as there is mounting research to document just how nature experiences benefit us physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Let’s look at one small area of study: Dirt. While reading the book “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World”, by Richard Louv, I was surprised to learn that dirt could be good for kids in some not-so-obvious ways. 

He 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.” 

And later, he links this soil bacterium to potential mental health benefits as well:

“Even exposure to dirt may boost mood, along with the immune system. The research noting the positive effect of Mycobacterium vaccae on the ability of mice to run a maze also noted a reduction in anxiety. A separate study, conducted at Bristol University and reported in the journal Neuroscience, found that mice exposed to M. vaccae, the “friendly” bacteria found in soil, produced more serotonin”. 

So, my mother was onto something. Playing in “good, old-fashioned dirt” as she calls it, is likely doing more good for kids than meets the eye. 

Now when I think back to my daughter sitting on the ground at our campsite or on the beach, gleefully running her fingers through the earth and stuffing it into her mouth, I can’t help but wonder how these early experiences shaped her. Did we unknowingly give her an intellectual advantage by tapping into nature this way? When I look at her, I see how much she learns about the world from observing and interacting with nature. Just this Fall, we were walking together in the forest. She noticed the changing colors of the leaves and said, “Mommy – there’s something strange about this world; it’s always changing.” The wisdom contained in that one observation will save her so much suffering in this life! 

It occurs to me that this child is ‘nature smart’ in the way that some people are ‘book smart.’ She learns from being in the living world. She is drawn to the lessons of plants and animals. She feels compelled to peel the bark off a tree and see underneath. She picks up on the patterns of color, shape, and lines so abundant in the living world. It is a gift to have this kind of intelligence because it will always connect you to what truly matters: life.

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