Forest Playgrounds are Healthy for Kids

New study from Finland proves it’s healthy to play in nature.

Nov 19, 2020

(ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com)

Remember being told by your mom to “go out and play?” Turns out she was right, yet aside from fun and exercise, there’s another advantage to being outdoors: nature boosts the immune system. And this is not just for kids. Everyone can benefit from a little biodiversity, so come outside and play!

A study published in Science Advances shows that children’s immune markers improved after just four weeks of playing in nature. Researchers took a group of children aged 3 to 5 years at ten daycare centers in two Finnish cities.

The yards at the urban daycares were constructed from manmade, inorganic materials, what the researchers referred to as “harsh, arid environments.” They transformed these urban, gravel-covered playgrounds to forest floors complete with sod, peat, and planters filled with flowers. Children were encouraged to climb on the peat blocks, play and dig in the earth, and be involved in the garden.

Researchers also looked at children who attended nature-oriented daycares and who visited the forest daily. In all of the settings, the children’s average outdoor playtime every day was one and a half hours.

Comparing the immune system of the children before and after, researchers noticed a dramatic improvement in children who attended the urban daycares after just 28 days. This is the first human trial where the environmental biodiversity was changed in a city setting and the results are exciting.

The outcome offers hope for improving health, especially for those living in cities. A lack of biodiversity in cities is making the world sick, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), noting that urban dwellers have more illnesses, including asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

The WEF is also connecting this to a loss of biodiversity in cities. Many cities have paved the green spaces with concrete, leaving urbanites with less access to biodiversity and a lack of what is referred to as “old friend microbes.” Found in forests and grasslands, the places where man originally evolved, these microbes strengthen and regulate our immune systems as well as trigger the chemicals in our bodies that control inflammation.

The Finnish research shows that interaction with microbiologically diverse dirt and plants can improve both the skin and gut microbiota. This may be surprising to those who believe that all germs are bad. As soil is one of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, the WEF recommends that adults and children alike should be getting dirty and touching the earth.

And, as the study reveals, it is possible to improve the immune system with a few simple changes outside. Biodiversity can be made in urban areas; connect with it by growing a wide variety of plants, and if you do not have your own green space, be part of a community garden

The next time you suggest your children go out and play, join them. Head outside to a green space and become reacquainted with those old friend microbes!

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.