Finnish Study Reveals the Benefits of Nature Exposure for Children

A new study coming out of Finland is giving parents and paid caregivers hope that the benefits of gardening for kids extend beyond just allowing them some time in the sun. The study focused on children between the ages of three and five years old and showed that their immune systems actually improved after being exposed to forest undergrowth, planter boxes, and lawns. They were specifically exposed to these elements when they were placed outside of daycare centers, giving more than just parents reasons to be interested in the study’s results. Although everyone is concerned about the health of children and wants them to be as healthy as possible, this is sometimes easier said than done. This Finnish study gives credence to the idea that children can become healthier, and perhaps avoid long term health issues, simply by spending more time doing outdoor activities that can be offered both at home and at daycare centers.

Prior to the Finnish study, dozens of comparative studies were executed, focusing on children that live in rural areas. They revealed that these children, often in constant contact with nature, have a lower likelihood of developing immune system disorders and diseases. Additionally, these children specifically were found to have a lower likelihood of developing coeliac disease, atopy, allergies, and diabetes.

The component of the study concerning diabetes is especially interesting for Americans. The United States has long struggled with a diabetes issue. At times, diabetes is linked to obesity, which in general is considered an epidemic in the U.S. When individuals develop obesity due to problems with their diets rather than issues related to their hormones, they often are more at risk of developing diabetes in turn. However, diabetes does not always go hand in hand with obesity. Some people develop diabetes due to genetic risk factors, and can even develop diabetes when they are underweight. Diabetes offers serious health complications, like heart conditions and the need for diabetic foot care in order to prevent the need for amputation in the future. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that people are interested in exploring ways in which they can prevent children from growing up and suffering from diabetes. If preventing diabetes is among the benefits of gardening for kids, it’s possible that children may very well be gardening more in the future, at home and in daycare centers.

The Finnish study specifically focused on uncovering exactly how often children need to be in contact with nature in order to reap those benefits. They should have contact with nature-like elements at least five times per week, after which the body’s microbes will become diversified. This means that children will be afforded protection from diseases transmitted through the immune system. It is important to note that there is not a specific type of activity children must focus on in order to diversify their microbes. Tagging along for both lawn and garden care can allow children to not only have fun but grow healthier. However, they must experience this kind of exposure not only at home but in their daycare centers, or at the homes of their babysitters. This is why the benefits of gardening for kids is so often focused upon, as gardening, scaled down for younger children in some cases, can be done virtually anywhere.

Originally, the study was published in Science Advances, and also illustrated what the children were doing in order to have their microbes diversified. Specifically, the children in the study planted and tended crops in planter boxes. Although this was a far cry from large scale garden landscaping, it still allowed them to experience the benefits of gardening for kids. The children were not always task-oriented, of course, and also played on lawns that were added to spaces at daycare centers that were paved, tiled, or gravel-coated.

Microbial Diversity Is Increased Through Biodiversity

It is important to note that this study was conducted on a somewhat larger scale, allowing researchers to be reasonably assured of the veracity of their results. In total, 75 children took part in the study and were monitored over the course of a month. They included 10 different daycare centers across Lahti and Tampere. Children that attended daycare centers with nature centers added in with the help of landscapers were compared to children that attended daycare centers that were typical and did not include green yard areas. Additionally, they were compared to children that attended daycare centers that lacked green yard areas but required regular nature-oriented field trips for children.

When children played in biodiverse areas for a month or longer, they eventually experienced microbial diversity on their skin. This, however, is just one of the large scale benefits of gardening for kids. Their blood counts also experienced changes over time. For one thing, there was an increase in gammaproteobacteria. This in turn strengthened the immune defense of the skin. In time, the content of the TGF-B1-cytokine, which is multifunctional, increased while the content of interleukin-17A was decreased. The latter is connected to immune-transmitted diseases. Overall, the intestinal microbiota of these children was similar to that of children that actively visited the forest on a daily basis. This despite the fact that these children were spending more time in areas that were closed in by fences, rather than actively going outside to experience the wilderness.

It’s also been projected that, based on results from both the Finnish study and previous comparative studies, these children will experience heightened abilities to concentrate as well as more refined motor skills. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that among the benefits of gardening for kids is the ability to grow and develop stronger physical and emotional skills in general. However, this cannot be done if individuals do not ensure that their children experience the great outdoors regularly. This would not be done only through gardening, of course, but also through other tactics that incorporate nature into the lives of children. It could potentially cause adults in the future to demand that daycare centers offer more biodiversity and nature-based experiences for children.

The question for some may be how children can be better exposed to nature in the wake of these studies. Fortunately, it is actually much easier to incorporate biodiversity into the lives of children than it may initially seem. There are steps that need to be taken in order to accommodate these changes, and they may require both thought and investment from parents and caregivers alike. But in the long term, they will be worth it as they will produce stronger children that are better set up for the future.

How to Increase Biodiversity for Children

When focusing on giving children the opportunity to experience more biodiversity, there are several approaches that parents and caregivers can take. Certainly, it is important that children go outside at least once a day, health permitting. While this may initially be intimidating for parents amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, going outside in the open air, properly socially distanced from people, is quite healthy for children. Certainly, it is healthier than forcing them to stay inside all day, looking at their computer screens. An estimated two-thirds of all teachers report that the children they teach are currently less engaged during their remote instructions than they were prior to the pandemic. This surely is not surprising, as kids are simply growing tired of being indoors and taught remotely.

Although there are many benefits of gardening for kids, children do not need to garden in order to experience biodiversity. Children may experience better results in some cases by being exposed to truly natural biodiversity. For example, during the autumn when leaves are falling, parents may want to resist the urge to have their leaves raked up or blown away. Children instead can be exposed to the leaves’ natural decay, which is extremely healthy and natural. Parents could also use this as an opportunity to teach their kids about the process of decay, as well as the revegetation process in general. Nature can be a little intimidating and even scary at times, but children can learn about it by spending time outdoors with their parents. This will not only boost their health in the long term but also create an interesting environment through which they can learn about science in a hands-on manner.

This is why a lot of parents also allow their children to take part in nature-centric tasks that need to be taken care of at home, like tree care or watering the plants. In order for your family to soak up the benefits of gardening for kids, parents may want to consider trimming some of the more difficult tasks down to an easy level that their children can take part in and appreciate. For example, they should allow very young children to go ahead and water plants with them, while older children may be allowed to help plant seeds or seedlings with you. Much of their decisions as parents should be focused on creating an environment in which their children can easily take part in gardening. No matter how young their children are, they can still take part in the process and benefit from it.

Parents may also want to make more natural decisions for their landscapes based on increased biodiversity. If they have mulch around your garden or their hedges, reconsider the types of wood chips that are included. Many wood chips that are included in mulch today have gone through a cleaning process and have even been dyed. But some types are more natural and can contribute to the biodiversity of gardens as well as the health benefits for children.

Additionally, composting can be used to further increase biodiversity in a home or even day care center’s garden. This process can be labor-intensive, to be certain. But its long term benefits for children are manifold and can extend beyond the basic benefits of gardening for kids. This process can be quite complex, and parents should not necessarily move forward without speaking first to a professional gardener for tips. But at the same time, making more natural choices can allow parents to know that their children are experiencing biodiversity simply from playing around outside.

Of course, not all parents have backyards or patios, in which case they may want to take their children on nature walks, or drive them out to large nature parks. Kids can benefit from the great outdoors even if they don’t necessarily live in an area where there are a lot of green spaces. In some cases, of course, even this level of nature can be difficult to reach. But this doesn’t mean that children can’t experience the benefits of biodiversity.

Parents that live in extremely urban areas may want to invest in planter boxes and clay pots, creating gardens inside their homes and apartments. Children can get an up-close and personal look at the benefits of gardening for kids, while at the same time enjoying the process of picking out their ideal plants and growing their gardens. Gardening allows children to both learn about science and express a great deal of creativity. Another idea to consider is having children grow plants that will specifically become vegetables or grow fruit. Children can eat the fruits and veggies that they grow themselves, and develop a taste for these foods. In many ways, this could be a part of ensuring that they have healthier diets in the future, and ideally will be healthier on a more general level.

It can be difficult to tell what the future will hold in terms of discoveries related to these studies. But ideally, these studies are revealing the real impact that gardening and biodiversity can have on children. Parents don’t need to make giant lifestyle changes in order to ensure that their children benefit from them in the long term. They simply need to make sure that their children experience nature as much as possible, making it fun for the whole family; and for that matter, they should make sure that they are choosing daycare centers with the same focus and dedication to biodiversity.

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