Opinion: Dirt nourishes young minds
Free Press Opinion Columnist
Led by a two-year-old, my first trip through Colorado National Monument had nothing to do with the geological history of the area’s stone monoliths or John Otto’s passion for preserving the land. My tour was just about dirt.
We never made it more than a few hundred yards from the visitor parking areas. Why? We stopped to study every variation in the color and texture of the soil along the trails. On our journey, we frequently unpacked the collection of Matchbox trucks and tractors we carried everywhere, and we set up construction sites in the different types of dirt.
Until then, I’d really just thought of dirt as dirt. By myself, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to look at the ground. I would have focused on the trail ahead and the scene through my camera’s viewfinder. With my toddler tour guide, I was forced to slow down to appreciate sights and sounds to which I would have otherwise been oblivious.
Well before he could speak, my boy demanded time outside. Until he was 3 years old, we lived in a Denver town home that provided outdoor adventures I never could have imagined. We traveled for miles with him scooting along on his red, plastic motorcycle. We studied every weed growing in sidewalk cracks and crawled around in abandoned construction sites.
The work could be dirty and challenging, but clearly it was necessary for his development and mental health. In fact, Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, argues that “If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, then they’re not doing their job.”
We moved to Grand Junction a year after our tour of Colorado National Monument. Despite living next to an elementary school, I’ve always been struck by the lack of kids playing outside here. When I was growing up, we had a neighborhood baseball team comprised of players from all sorts of backgrounds and ages. We were so far out of each other’s social circles that we never talked to one another at school, but we had the best time being neighborhood buddies.
As my own kids have grown up, it’s been clear that neighborhood baseball teams have become part of history. Kids are growing up inside and with schedules so structured that they can only get together for organized play dates tracked on moms’ calendars.
With a commitment to increasing children’s appreciation of nature, National Wildlife Federation has compiled some disturbing statistics in their report, “The Dirt About Dirt.” In the last 20 years, kids have begun spending less time outside, “childhood obesity rates more than doubled, the United States became the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world, 7.6 million U.S. children are vitamin D deficient, and the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients rose sharply.” Parents now seek psychiatric support for 15 percent of all children, and 5 percent of them are medicated for ADHD or psychiatric diagnoses.
Having direct contact with soil has been found to improve children’s moods by increasing serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain. Serotonin reduces anxiety and increases relaxation and readiness to learn. Playing in dirt has the same effect as exercising or consuming antidepressants.
Besides nurturing children’s minds, dirt also improves physical health by creating a stronger immune system. According to the National Wildlife Federation, when “children are too clean and their exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, they face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and type-one diabetes during adulthood.”
As adults, we’ve allowed politics to divide us about virtually everything affecting the future of today’s young people. We fight about environmental sustainability and access to education, healthcare, food, living wages, and healthy air and water.
Perhaps dirt is just the thing to get Republicans and Democrats working together toward better futures for our kids. With public lands everywhere around us and backyards warm enough for gardening, there’s really no excuse not to try. Let’s work together to get the kids in our community outside where they belong.
A fourth generation Coloradan, Free Press columnist Robyn Parker is the former host of the progressive community radio show, Grand Valley Live. She is a stay-at-home mom, active community volunteer and board member for local environmental and social justice organizations. Robyn may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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