Strengthening your child’s immune system really is as easy as letting them play with dirt. Seriously. Researchers from Finland looked at how adding natural elements to playgrounds could affect children’s immune systems and microbiome and found some positive data.
Researchers studied 75 kids at 10 daycare centres in two cities in Finland. Six centres functioned as control facilities, with half of the centres being nature-orientated while the other half were considered standard urban daycare centres.
A further four remaining “intervention” daycare centres originally had no natural elements and received a makeover as part of the study, which according to Healthline, included covering the gravel ground with forest floor.
Over the course of the 28-day study, the kids at the various daycare centres spent roughly 90 minutes of their day outside, after which the researchers swabbed their skin and tested their blood to see the impact outside play was having on their immune response.
According to Healthline, both the children at the intervention and nature-orientated daycares experienced higher ratios of anti-inflammatory immune system proteins to pro-inflammatory proteins as well as a higher diversity of microorganism on their skin.
Playing in elements like forest dirt was also found to help stimulate the pathways that regulate the immune system but researchers said that more research is needed in order to understand whether this equals improved health in the long run.
“It may lead to lower diseases, but that’s not an easy extrapolation to make,” Dr Purna C. Kashyap, a gastroenterologist and co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s microbiome program, told Healthline. “The challenge with these kinds of studies is that you need 10-, 20-, 30-year follow-ups to see how these children do in the long term, rather than just the short term.”
Dr Martin J. Blaser, professor at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Henry Rutgers chair of the human microbiome, and director at the Centre for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, also questioned whether these microbes would be helpful for humans in the long run.
“The microbes that live in soil are adapted for soil, and the microbes in pet dogs are adapted to pet dogs, not humans. Many times, when such microbes are introduced in humans, they don’t last that long,” Dr Blaser said.
While further research needs to be undertaken to uncover the long term effects of these microbes on the immune system, it seems the old wives tale of playing with dirt to stay healthy as a kid has some legs.