We talk quite a bit about the physical and developmental impacts of play. There’s no doubt about the benefits of outdoor play, free play, and quality time at the playground. It doesn’t matter your age or ability – the fresh air and movement is beneficial to your health. Playing outside is an inexpensive investment health of your family!
Children who spend quality time outdoors – meaning not moving in between the house to school and back again – are shown to have decreased levels of stress, better opportunities to socialize and share, and they are better risk takers. No matter our age, outdoor time is a great way to improve our day.
In the era of screen time, and unlimited access to Wi-Fi, getting children outside – especially older children – can be a struggle. But with so many benefits, it’s important that we continue to try encouraging outdoor time. Even 20 minutes has been shown to have value. The simple increase of movement from being outdoors – and playing – can increase the movement of your lymphatic system and helps boost your immune system. Sending your children outside, for even just a short time, of vigorous play can be just what your family needs to help kickstart some immunity building in a world that’s been essentially secluded for the past few years.
For those of us living in northern latitudes, the boost of Vitamin D from the sun’s rays and exposure to microbes in early life has been shown to reduce the likelihood of allergies later in life compared to those who are not exposed. While it may seem counterintuitive as a parent, exposing your child to nature, and the dirt and microbes that come with that may be a saving grace later on. Interestingly, there’s even some theory suggesting that the lack of exposure to Vitamin D gets kids sick at the start of school. As fall sets in, we spend less time outside and more time indoors with the windows closed. It’s not that the germs or bacteria appear in the fall, it’s that we are able to avoid them with fresh air, sunshine, and play!
One way to make outdoor play areas more diverse, and better for a child’s immune system, is to build up a natural environment around and in the play areas. Real trees, plants, and grass supports a healthy immune system. City playgrounds can add dirt trails, planter boxes or gardens. What kid doesn’t love to climb in and around rocks and trees?
There was an experiment done via the Natural Resources Institute of Finland that showed an improvement to a child’s immune system is as little as 28 days when children played at playgrounds that have a greater diversity of microbes – like dirt, trees, moss – versus a child who only had access to a paved or surfaced playground. More natural play environments see to help improve the regulation of their immune systems.
Getting dirty – yes, even getting dirt in your mouth – can help create a diverse gut micro-biome that helps with long-term health. One tiny patch of soil can have upwards of 4 billion tiny creatures roaming around. Now, we should avoid the blatant ‘gross’ dirt – you know…the dog park perhaps. Let’s stick to getting dirty by gardening or going for nature walks with the kids instead! The immune boost is amazing, but so is the connection to nature and the learned appreciation for seeing bugs and critters in their natural environment. Life it too short to not play in the dirt!