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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.

As of July 20, this post 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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