Our first garden was built atop a junk pile. A junk pile that had shards of glass and random pieces of aluminum sticking out of it. The typical garden deals out scars to hands and sometimes the ego… this garden left me with a massive scar on my foot that I still see every morning when I put on my socks.
But that didn’t stop my mom from
embracing child labor encouraging us to help her in the garden. Her specialty was herbs, but we also grew fruits and vegetables each summer. We moved away from the junk zone but she created a new garden in a new zip code, and that garden grew right along with us into our teenage years. I hated it then, but have realized over the years just how important those experiences of watering, pulling weeds and picking the bounty were in shaping our childhood—and our immune systems.
I recently read an interview with Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, author of a new book called “The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from the Soil.” In the interview, the author discusses how kids today experience an unprecedented number of allergies, and how that impacts their cognitive, social and physical development—something her youngest son experienced. Realizing how drastically kids’ food has changed over the past 20 years, she set out on a mission to reconnect her family with nature.
A few highlights from her interview:
- The “Dirt Cure” she recommends is a balance of 1) eating nutrient-dense food from healthy soil 2) being exposed to certain microbes, and 3) spending time outdoors in nature
- Children who grow up on farms tend to have lower rates of asthma and other allergies
- Diverse bacteria is good because it helps balance kids’ immune systems
- In one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet (whoa!)
- Good soil = good food
- Chickens are cool (I totally agree)
As I dug around further, I found that Shetreat-Klein isn’t the only one to have made the claim that dirt helps keep kids mentally and physically healthy. When it comes to physical health, Dr. Graham A.W. Rook, a professor in the department of infection at the Centre for Clinical Microbiology at the University College London, sheds insight as to why the diverse bacteria present in soil is so effective at helping boost immune systems in this U.S. News and World Report article.
“The bottom line is organisms that were present in mud, untreated water, and feces were with us right from the start of humanity,” he said. “What has happened over the course of evolution is, because these bugs had to be tolerated, they came to activate the tolerance of the immune system. They are the police force that keeps the immune system from becoming trigger-happy. Basically, the immune system is now attacking things it shouldn’t be attacking.”
As we approach growing season, here are a few ways you can get your kids playing in the dirt:
1) Plant a garden. From a small planter filled with one or two herbs to a full on vegetable garden, engaging your kids in the process of growing food for the family can fun for everyone.
2) Encourage kids to dig for things. Worms, bugs, cool rocks, fossils and even arrowheads are just a few of the treasures your kids can uncover when digging in the dirt. Create a list and have them check off all the fun things they find.
3) Create art. Mud paintings and sculptures are just a couple of ways you can use mud as a fun medium for creating artistic expressions.
4) Compost. This goes a little beyond just playing in the dirt, but composting is a great way to keep food out of the landfills (which is what causes those nasty methane gases) and help create nutrient-rich soil.
5) Dig a mud puddle. What happens when you add dirt and water together? Numerous hours of entertainment for your little ones.
Too often I find myself encouraging my kid to stay OUT of the mud. I plan on changing that.
I leave you with a few lyrics from Arrested Development’s “Children Play with Earth” (released in ’92!):
Unplug the television
And make way for an old vision
Which will now be a new vision, yes
Headliner, lay the foundation
Dig your hands in the dirt
Children play with earth