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Clean food and dirty kids

Strawberry fields forever

There came a moment during strawberry-picking last week when the 6-year-olds decided they’d had enough. While the grown-ups continued busily picking a flat apiece, my daughter and her friend snuck off to the shade for a drink and a snack. Then the girls plopped themselves in the dirt and set to work, drawing roads and concocting stories about the imaginary travelers at the ends of their sticks.    

I’ve always thought playing in dirt makes kids happy because it’s messy. And sensory. And because kids aren’t hung up on being clean and smelling good and worrying what others think. All they know is that dirt is transformative. Literally, from dust to mud. Figuratively, from strawberry patch to fairy highway.    

Yes and, apparently, no.    

Plenty of research over the last decade and more has shown how kids benefit from gardening and other time spent in nature.*  They’re more confident, patient, responsible and compassionate.  They know (and care) more about food and the environment. They learn more easily. Some of that is simple exposure to living, growing things. But a lot of it is the freedom, fresh air and physical activity that lets little brains and bodies find their groove.    

Healthy soil, happy kid

Now we have studies on the effects of contact with dirt itself. But not just any dirt. Garden dirt. Farm dirt. Soil. The rich, healthy, organic stuff. Because that’s the kind of dirt that contains a bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae, a bug that’s been getting a lot of attention. A 2007 study found that M. vaccae increases serotonin — the brain’s feel-good chemical — and decreases anxiety. A new study, out last month, reports that M. vaccae’s mood-boosting properties make it easier to learn new things. Get M. vaccae on your hands, inhale it while you dig — even eat some on freshly harvested lettuce — and the research says you’ll feel more relaxed, alive, alert.    

Studies or not, that kind of makes sense, you know? When I think about how my daughter responds to plants and soil, how she both lights up and calms down, it does seem as though something biological is at work. I feel it, too, when I garden bare-handed with dust in my lungs and dirt up my nose. All of which has me newly appreciating the attraction of children to dirt. And the importance of getting kids outside, not just to play, but to plant or pick and otherwise connect in a direct way with their food.    

I’m a longtime and serious — though now seriously lapsed — flower gardener, but I haven’t delved as deeply into edible gardening as I’d hoped. Partly that’s time, and partly it’s the abundance here in western New York and the gratitude I feel for the farmers who supply our food. We usually have a few tomatoes and herbs, some beans or peas potted up at school, a tiny patch of resilient raspberries, and the occasional squash or pumpkin that springs from the compost pile. But mostly we’re happy to just reap the benefits of what the farmers do best.    

Waiting for tomatoes. (But why the gloves?)

That means we spend a lot of time picking berries and apples, harvesting vegetables during CSA work days, and of course shopping the farmers’ markets. But whether we’re planting-tending-harvesting ourselves, or just arriving at the end of the line, we’re getting to know our food. And that, I think, is what counts.    

And because that counts, it’s tempting to wonder what else our kids might gain when we introduce them to food from the source. Yes, they’ll learn about plants and animals and the fact that real food comes from somewhere, not from some place.  And they’ll appreciate (we hope) the idea of building community and supporting practices that keep people and the planet healthy.    

But what if connecting with agriculture also makes kids feel good about themselves? What if getting their hands dirty makes them happy even beyond  the messiness of it? Psychology Today called all this bacteria-assisted communing with food and soil a return to “our optimal habitat.” Sounds about right to me.    

How do your kids become one with dirt? With their food? Have you felt that soil-happy high?    

*For research summaries, see Cornell University’s Garden-Based Learning program and the Children & Nature Network.    

This post is linked into Foodie Tots’ Local Potluck Tuesdays, Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back Fridays, Food Revolution Fridays, Vegetarian Foodie Fridays and Wholesome Whole Foods.  

As of July 20, this post also is part of the Healthy Child Blog Carnival, an effort by the non-profit Healthy Child Healthy World to inspire a movement to protect children from harmful chemicals. More details in this post.

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{ 21 comments… add one }

  • angie June 30, 2010, 8:55 am

    I enjoyed reading this post very interesting

  • Christy June 30, 2010, 9:33 am

    I have terrible luck with gardens and like you are surrounded by an abundance of choices – I live in an Amish area of Indiana. But I do know how wonderful it is to muck about in a garden. My kids – who are super healthy – play outside a lot. I really think that some of what I used to consider laziness and cheapness – I don’t hand sanitize for ex. – is what has helped my children to become the healthy people they are. When I read somewhere that a little dirt is good for kids I wanted to holler hallelujah !

  • Paula June 30, 2010, 9:41 am

    I’ve never been one of those moms who insisted that her children be spotless clean. My boys play(ed) in the dirt since they could walk. They help me in the garden and pick and pull weeds barehanded. I, on the other hand, cannot stand to get my hands dirty in the garden LOL. Even with gloves on, my hands still get dirt under the nails, it stains the cracks on my fingertips, etc. Sometimes I feel like giving up on gardening because I cannot stand the dirt on my hands. How girly is that LOL.

    • Christina July 1, 2010, 10:52 am

      Oh I know. As much as I love gardening bare-handed, there are times I’d rather not be standing at the sink with a pumice and a scrub brush. I’ve read that you can scratch your nails across a bar of soap before gardening, to make it easier to remove the dirt later. Never tried it, but it makes sense. Maybe give that a whirl?

  • Alyss June 30, 2010, 5:28 pm

    What a great post! I have always been a fan of dirt and though I don’t have kids of my own I am sure that when I do they will be children of the soil :) I love my little garden and have been composting with worms for a couple years. I never mind getting my hands dirty until its time to be in the office or go out for the evening. Then I look at my dirty nails and cracked fingers and … well, then I’m proud that I spent so much time in the garden that day!

  • kristi June 30, 2010, 9:03 pm

    My daughter loves to dig in the boxed-in dirt that was once the deck-side flower garden of my house’s previous owners. Reading this makes me feel not as guilty about having neglected to fill it with flowers!

    I need to allow all my kids to get a bit more dirty and be okay with it. I am far from a neat-freak, but the added work dirty kids adds to the end of the day sometimes prevents me from letting them explore the environment as much as they’d like to.

    • Christina July 1, 2010, 10:47 am

      My best advice: Make friends with the hose. When my daughter was tiny, we’d end a day of messy play by letting her play with the hose (or the kiddie pool or both). We had to step away or get soaked ourselves, but she loved playing with the hose so much that she managed to get herself pretty clean by the end.

  • Christine July 1, 2010, 10:14 am

    I’ve always enjoyed gardening, who knew on the bacteria thing. Interesting!

    Maybe you could plant some lesser known, not likely to show up at the farmer’s market edibles, as a way to get into it more. That way you aren’t necessarily taking away from some one else’s efforts. And when you look at it there are so many different types of plants and food that people just don’t grow to sell.

    Good luck!

    • Christina July 1, 2010, 10:39 am

      That’s so true about the variety of options out there. And it is fun to grow what you can’t find elsewhere. We’re doing that this year with some mini purple peppers. (Forgot about those when I wrote the post!)

  • Kathy at Wellness Roadtrip July 1, 2010, 10:32 am

    Wow…thanks for doing the research and sharing it. This is amazing. I have felt that serotonin flood when I work in the dirt. My husband has been nearly obsessive about the soil around our house, ordering loads of manure and rototilling it in. He would walk around grabbing great handfuls and say, “It’s it beautiful.” I think he really got the serotonin rush. We don’t vegetable garden either (just herbs) and for the exact reasons you mentioned…too many others do it so much better. But my kids have all experienced planting and harvesting and local farms.

    A funny story about dirt. I’ve always encouraged “dirty” play. My son was about 5 and had a friend over to play. This was the type of kid who wore “Polo” as an everyday outfit. Well they went outside and got trashed…mud, water etc. They had to strip in the garage and I put the other little boy in a typical Target outfit from my son’s drawer. His mother showed up and said, “Oh look at Jack. He looks just like a Gillen, so practical.” It was an odd statement…but one I decided to take as a compliment.

    • Christina July 1, 2010, 10:44 am

      Too funny about the “practical” outfit. I used to think of play clothes as a small subset of my daughter’s wardrobe. Now the ratio has tipped: We set aside a few special outfits for non-messy wear, but the rest? Well, between the dirt and the art projects, her wardrobe is all play clothes, all the time. It makes me smile, actually, to see the remnants of so many happy times.

  • Kira July 1, 2010, 8:56 pm

    This post makes me smile. I mused once earlier this spring while working in the greenhouse, wrists deep in freshly made organic potting mix, that I would love for the sweet, earthy fragrance of spring soil to be made into a perfume.

    Yep, I’m odd like that… But that scent brings about feelings of deep relaxation for me, and I have always loved getting back into the soil after a crummy, depressing winter. My mother encouraged me to garden from the time I was old enough to help hold the trowel and sow seeds, and when I have kids they will definitely be in the dirt, too.

  • colleen @ foodietots July 1, 2010, 11:31 pm

    I saw that study about soil, too, so fascinating. My son has suddenly taken to going barefoot in our yard. My city-raised husband cringes, but it reminds me to encourage him to go ahead and get dirty. That’s what the bath tub is for! (And thanks for sharing with the Local Potluck, hope you’ll come back again next week!)

  • Doro July 3, 2010, 12:58 am

    This is an interesting post. I never heard of M. vaccae before. There is always going to be bacteria in our lives, it’s essential (as you know digestive system is full of helpful bacteria). But it’s not only the exposure to helpful bacteria that is important. For if we don’t have little bits of bacteria for our bodies to fight off now and then, when we get exposed to it, we will have no defense system already in place. And, we need the ramparts of our immune systems to be aware and able to fight. That is why cleanliness is important, but antibacterial soaps and gels are potentially dangerous (as is misuse of antibiotics) because we don’t allow them the training for battle that they need.

    By the way, I’ve purchased from http://www.nothyme.com, a company that sells a lot of varieties and heirloom veggies. If you are looking for something unique, their offerings may be worth a peek. They’ve got a lot of crazy beans, striped beets, ornamental corn, white pumpkins, flowers that smell better than they look, etc.

  • Nicole July 3, 2010, 1:32 pm

    Nice points! I have eaten chard out in our fields and felt great relaxation and relief on a stressful day! Yum!

  • Nancy July 15, 2010, 11:35 am

    Love this post! I’m afraid I’m no gardener, but we have always encouraged outdoor, messy, barefoot (except around the beehives) play, and my two have always been hardy and healthy, though I’m sure they’ve each consumed the requisite “peck of dirt”. This is what our immune systems are for, right?

    • Christina July 15, 2010, 11:30 pm

      Beehives? Now that’s something I’d like to try. (Unless, of course, you’re talking about ground bees. LOL.)

  • Brenna @ Almost All The Truth July 21, 2010, 8:18 pm

    I hadn’t seen that study, that is so fascinating to me! I am a big fan of kids playing in dirt. It makes me crazy sometimes, but seeing their enjoyment always overrides that. I think we have long known the importance of play and work outside, but have forgotten how and why to do it naturally. I love that there was a study done that proves it!

  • Angie July 28, 2010, 2:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Chris!

    I have found that my kids, especially Mackenzie, are the happiest when they are digging. They will sit in the dirt and just dig. It used to drive me crazy bu then I remembered that I used to do the same thing as a kid and how happy I was digging and being dirty. I love the smell of fresh-dug earth. There is so many things I smell when I smell dirt. There is a natural clean, a youthful innocence, a sensualness toward nature. There is something so basic and simple and yet complex about the smell of dirt.

    We grow a lit of our own veggies in the summe rand my kids love to eat out of the garden. They will wlak barefoot through the plants searching for beans and peas, cukes and tomaotes, carrots and radishes.

    Mackenzie will pick the basil and parsley and lettuces and stand there and eat them. “Mommy, which leaves can I eat?” I point to her choices and she picks some of each and stands there stands there and munches away almost rabbit-like.

    I have introduced my kids to the wonderful taste of zucchini flowers. Connor wan’t too impressed but Mackenzie, who loves edible flowers, ate them happily.

    I’m glad that I can deal with my “dirty” kids!

  • Stacy May 25, 2011, 2:22 pm

    We always garden bare-handed (thorny stuff is the exception). When the kids aren’t home, I garden naked. The feel of the healthy soil on your skin, the warm sun, it’s an amazing experience that puts you in touch with yourself, your food, the earth, and God. I encourage the kids to wear as little as possible (appropriate modesty) when outside. They need to touch the soil and feel the sun and the air. My children LOVE helping plant, watering, weeding, moving worms around, and eating the garden! We encourage them to get dirty, make a mess, make it beautiful, and eat, breathe, live! We watched Dirt, the movie recently, and the kids were fascinated by how people were tasting the dirt. I’m all for it! It’s the basis of life!

    • Christina May 25, 2011, 10:58 pm

      Stacy, not sure naked gardening would fly in my urban neighborhood, but I so get the desire to connect on that level. You’ve also reminded me that I really need to watch that movie.

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