Up at the Tree House- A Mud Pie a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Education // April 17, 2019

By Christina Moresi, Wissahickon Environmental Center
Christina Moresi is an Environmental Education Planner at the Wissahickon Environmental Center.

Have you ever noticed that when you hike through the forest or dig in the garden with your hands, something magical happens to your mind, body, and general well-being? You may feel happier, breathe easier, have greater focus, or get a spurt of creative energy. But is it magic, or is there a scientific explanation for what happens when you connect with soil?

Soil is part of our everyday lives. We hike on it, grow our food in it, and touch it every day. It contains living organisms, rock particles, minerals, decayed organic materials, air, and water. In the Wissahickon, the soil has an extra sparkle thanks to the flaky, glassy mineral called mica. The development of soil takes hundreds of years. It is the foundation of all life, and billions of organisms live in it. Soil is a water purifier, a media for plants, a habitat, an organic recycler, and a material for man-made structures.

There is a growing amount of research on the physical and physiological benefits of touching soil for both children and adults. The science is complex, but while sorting through the research, I discovered that exposure to soil-based organisms, such as bacteria, strengthens the immune system. A recent study conducted by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, found that one bacterium in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, which is found in most backyard soil, increases serotonin levels, also known as the “happy chemical,” in humans.

Although adults benefit from exposure to soil bacteria and outdoor play, it is most effective when exposure begins in early childhood and continues through adulthood. Although we are raising our children in more sterile environments than previous generations, the rate of allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory and auto-immune diseases are rising. Without exposure to “germs,” including bacteria in soil, the immune system cannot properly build itself. When babies instinctively put items in their mouths, they are introducing bacteria into their systems. As children grow and have access to soil though play, they are consistently building new immunities for stronger, more complex systems. This, along with all the other benefits of outdoor play, builds the body and mind in a more complete form.

Whatever your stage of life, getting outside and getting dirty is as important as regular exercise. At the Tree House, we foster exploring nature with the senses, taking risks, and, of course, getting dirty. If you are not a dirt-loving person, or are unsure how you can incorporate dirt into your child’s play, check out A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play by Ken Finch (2009) at greenheartsinc.org/uploads/A_Parents__Guide_to_Nature_Play.pdf, visit childrenandnature.org, or just ask us at the Tree House.

Or, join us June 29, any time between 10 a.m.–noon at the Tree House as we celebrate International Mud Day. Your kids (and you) will get dirty, but isn’t that the point?