Earth Day is just days away (this coming Sunday, April 22)! Let’s get outside and celebrate! In fact, encouraging your kids to get up close and personal with the Earth – as in, soil and dirt – turns out to be a good idea any day of the year. Make that every day; a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids” provides some compelling data on how playing in the dirt actually makes kids more healthy.
For instance, did you know that children’s stress levels are significantly reduced within minutes of entering green spaces? Or that a friendly bacteria found in soil helps produce serotonin, that all-important happiness-promoting hormone? Did you know playing in dirt can help develop healthy immune function in kids that’ll keep them healthy and strong long past childhood? Did you know that regular outdoor time will help your little rascal sleep more soundly at night? Or that kids who spend their free time indoors ‘playing’ with gadgets and looking at screens have higher rates of obesity, ADHD, Vitamin D deficiency and depression? Now you know! Once again, nature’s showing us all up by getting it right the first time around; because isn’t getting dirty what kids do best?
Unfortunately, our society’s emphasis on cleanliness (not to mention our indoor-focused, sedentary lifestyle) has some kids fearing dirt. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle several years ago, and one passage that struck me most profoundly at the time – and has stuck with me ever since – involved the author asking a bunch of kids (maybe at a school?) where vegetables come from. They were stumped. When she told them vegetables grow in the dirt, the kids squealed, “EWWWWWW!” That they didn’t know where vegetables come from (even vaguely) is sad enough, but that dirt, to them, meant ‘dirty,’ and dirty meant ‘gross,’ and ‘bad’ says a lot about how removed many of our children are from their mud pie-making, mote-digging, flower-pulling, hill-rolling roots. In fact, kids today spend half as much time outdoors as we all did 20 years ago; the current generation of kids is in desperate need of some unstructured outside-time.
I try to play outside with Kaspar every afternoon, after picking him up from school, both because I want him to run off as much steam as possible in the interest of sleeping through the night, and because I sit at my computer all morning in my little work-womb of a home office. The sunshine does me good, too. I hope I’m forming an outdoor habit in Kaspar, but I have no doubt the day will come when he insists he’d rather play video games than head outside to romp around. A mom-friend of mine has prepared me for this, though; her two kids (9 and 11) whine and moan about how boring their back yard is when she first sends them out there each day, but by the time they’ve been out for twenty minutes, they’re consistently having a ball. They then whine and moan when it’s time to come in for dinner. Kids are drawn to the outdoors, even if their tech-savvy little systems aren’t sure how to take that first step off the stoop. (My mom-friend's suggestion? "Just push them out there... Not too forcefully, of course!").
The National Wildlife Federation report caught my eye, too, because I am coincidentally thumbing through a gem of a little book right now—it’s on my bedside table-- titled I Love Dirt! -- which offers a huge collection of ideas for activities that’ll get kids engrossed, stimulated, relaxed and happy out in nature. The activities are recommended for kids ages four through eight, but can be easily modified to meet the interest level and attention spans of two-year-olds… and 27-year-olds *this girl*. I recommend it. The National Wildlife Federation offers up lots of other great ideas here, too.
Do you think your kids spend enough time outside? How do you get them out there? What are their favorite outdoor games and activities? How do you spend time as a family in nature? Is there anything that makes it challenging to do so? What gets in your way?
Ps. Oh,hey: Not all kids have parents who care. Help bring quality outdoor education into public school classrooms by urging your elected officials to support the No Child Left Inside Act. The NWF makes it super easy here.