"Teaching children about the natural world should be one of the most important events in their lives."
With the increased anxiety that may come with the fresh school year, with the perceived pressure kids may feel from returning to school after such a long break, with the worries about having the right knowledge, or haircut, or wearing the right shoes, take them back to Mother Nature. Free their minds and their spirits with the kind of ‘space’ that can really only be found outdoors. Let them dig, let them get dirty. A little dirt never hurt, quite the opposite in fact.
My family are very much a part of the ‘old school’ way of thinking when it comes to dirt; the five second rule ways applies if food is dropped on the floor (inevitably requiring removal of dog hairs), they would think nothing of crunching through sand filled picnics on windswept Scottish beaches, and returning home after adventures in the woods with grubby hands and twigs in the hair was a prerequisite.
Digging in the soil is nourishing for the soul.
Our children are growing up with a degree of stress and anxiety relatively alien to our generation (spoken as a 30-something parent). Digital take over - and that is not just them, but also us. We are all guilty (I certainly, and ashamedly, speak for myself) of spending too much time trapped in a screen, sifting through instagram, giving them only a fragment of the attention they call for because we have been distracted by a text message or an email ping.
A study by the National Trust found that children are spending less than 4 hours a week playing outside. That's less than 35 minutes in total a day.
We need to start, consciously, reversing this. Take them outside. Leave your phone indoors. Teach them to play, to build, to use their imaginations. Let nature strengthen them.
Researchers at Colorado University have linked a bacterium found in soil to promoting resilience to stress. The Mycobacterium can help combat anxiety and depression. Now this kind of thing we love! Nature holds all the answers.
“...we saw increasing serotonin in a part of their brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is essentially what all antidepressant drugs do.
So just exposure to these types of bacteria can alter the brain in a way that would prevent future inflammatory responses."
Prof. Chris Lowry, Colorado University
This is an incredible revelation as it really draws the relative simplicity (on the surface) of dirt or soil into a multi-faceted super power. If you consider the much overlooked bounty that lies beneath our feet, it is interesting to look at the universal benefits of soil. Of ingesting soil, of touching and running your fingers through it, of nurturing a seedling into a beautiful plant.
It nourishes us. It builds our immune system. It protects our mental health. It releases our pent up anxiety and tension and it ultimately keeps giving back to us; the more we nourish it, the more it gives us back.
We live in a dangerously over-modernised world where nature, both species and biodiversity, is being destroyed. Scientists and conservationists often refer to this era as the 'Sixth Mass Extinction'. Writing these words feels so small and futile, because this is so immense it's virtually impossible to convey. From a personal perspective of how this affects humans at their very core, their switch boards: where bacterial exposure is limited, allergies and immune disorders increase.
"A global loss of biodiversity, they reasoned, was to blame for the dysregulation of the human immune system and thus the increase in allergic and inflammatory diseases observed in developed nations around the world."
The bacterium found in soil helps build a strong and healthy immune system. Soil contains a ‘shield’ that protects our stomachs against harmful toxins, parasites and pathogens.
“This makes a lot of sense as plants are living organism, they grow in the soil. And even a three to four leaf spinach plant has over 800 different types of bacteria that live inside the plant.
“You can't wash them off when you eat fresh plants, you're eating living bacteria, and the more plants you eat, the more diverse exposure you will get.”
Prof. Chris Lowry, Colorado University
From a sensory perspective, the feeling of rain on your face or wind in your hair touches something primal within us. Physically feeling nature is an incredibly powerful thing. It is so important that children are given the opportunity to explore, given the tools to allow them to adventure freely, given the freedom to grow their imaginations in line with the diversity and endless wonder that lies all around.
"Biologically, chronologically, allegorically and delusionally, touch is the mother of all sensory systems. It is an ancient sense in evolution... It is the first sense aroused during a baby’s gestation and the last sense to fade at life’s culmination."
NEW YORK TIMES
So come rain or shine, let them be wild. They may be small, but they be mighty, these Tiny Explorers. Let them feel nature and teach them to respect our powerful, fragile Mother Nature.
If we want our children to move mountains, we first have to let them get out of their chairs.