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Defending dirt and Playing for Keeps

The other day my kids were playing in the mud with their cousins. We were replanting some lilac shoots from a very special family bush. While I was thinking about the significance of this 1oo+ year-old family heirloom, the kids were busy stomping in the mud and muck. I didn’t get upset with them – in fact I encouraged them. “Go ahead!” I said.  “Get dirty. I just read about a new study that says playing outside in the dirt may actually make you smarter!” The kids giggled at this and started asking each other, “Are you smarter now?” and answering,”Yes! E equals m c squared!”  I laughed, with them, but I am quite happy to have this new research in my arsenal in the fight to keep play in our children’s lives. So, the next time your little ones come in the house all grubby from making mud pies or digging to China, rest easy knowing that playing in the dirt has been shown to lower depression, lesson anxiety and now…make you smarter!

You see, back in May, Science Daily reported: “Exposure to specific bacteria in the environment, already believed to have antidepressant qualities, could increase learning behavior, according to research presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego.” Read the whole story here.

The researches found the effects were temporary, which means repeated exposure is good. Their research helps the growing  movement of outdoor classrooms, school yard gardens and bringing kids (and all of us) back outside. Personally, I know that when I am stressed, time outdoors always helps. I’ve known babies who would stop crying and fussing when they were brought outdoors.  I can relate because I am the same way. As a teacher, I always knew that time outside in nature was good for kids – especially as television, video games and the internet were keeping them more and more inside. I wrote more about nature and education in this article, “We Need More Sticks and Grass! We Need More Beauty!” .

Now, having evidence that being outside in nature can actually increase learning behavior – this is the icing on the cake. “This research suggests that M. vaccae may play a role in anxiety and learning in mammals,” says Matthews. “It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.”

Looking for more evidence that time spent outdoors is good for our children? Here’s more.  There’s a terrific new book just published by Teachers College Press. It is called  Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, by Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel and Beth Taylor. The book comes at just the right time, when parents and teachers are looking for ways to convince principals and policy makers that recess is a necessary and valuable part of the school day. The book is written about the early years at the Mission Hill School in Boston, a school that I am proud to have helped start and then teach at for eleven years. The authors are all incredibly talented teachers and mentors, who helped me learn how to closely observe children and the deep importance of active learning. It is from these women that I learned much of what I know about being a good teacher.

From the introduction, “We invite readers to appreciate the life of the imagination on the playground, to see the energy children bring to exploring their social and physical surrounds, and to share with us the children’s delight in active learning.”

If your children are outside – playing, living, laughing, learning and getting dirty – these two new bodies of evidence help confirm what you already know. If your children are inside more than you like, and you are advocating for recess, struggling to bring  a garden to your school yard or working to bring more outdoor recreation spaces into your community, now you have two new powerful weapons in your arsenal. Excellent.


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