Our sani­tised world is mak­ing kids sicker, not stronger. It’s time to let our kids, and our­selves, play in the mud again

Our sani­tised world is mak­ing chil­dren sicker, not health­ier. We’re de­signed to live in na­ture. Bi­ol­o­gist and father Rob Dunn says it’s time to let our kids – and our­selves – get dirty again

Men's Health (South Africa) - - HEALTH -

Some of my favourite times in child­hood were when I was out­side catch­ing things. I caught frogs. I caught fish. I caught snakes by the hun­dreds. I over­turned logs and climbed trees. I ex­plored. There must have been lim­its to my journeys – times I was sup­posed to be home, dis­tances I wasn’t sup­posed to ex­ceed – but I don’t re­call them. In­stead I re­mem­ber only what I caught. Any child­hood photo of me in which my feet are dry and I’m not hold­ing a live an­i­mal was prob­a­bly staged.

I was re­cently re­minded of all this when my son’s kinder­garten class took a field trip to a lo­cal pond. I’m a bi­ol­o­gist at North Carolina State Univer­sity, so the teach­ers asked me to come along. To pre­pare, I loaded up the car with nets, rub­ber boots, binoc­u­lars, field guides and a snake stick. In my en­thu­si­asm, I for­got to pack lunch for me and my son.

When we pulled into the park­ing lot, I re­alised that I was the only one who’d brought a boot full of gear. So as not to em­bar­rass my son, I pulled out just one net, one guide and one pair of binoc­u­lars. Re­luc­tantly, I left the snake stick be­hind.

Each child was as­signed a spot on the edge of the pond. One by one they were given a net, told to scoop out some muck and ex­am­ine it, and then pass the net to the next child. It was a good strat­egy for get­ting kids to dip a toe into na­ture.

Some­how ev­ery­one re­sisted go­ing into the pond – ex­cept me. I’d spot­ted a very large bull­frog just be­yond where the kids were qui­etly gath­er­ing net­fuls of na­ture. I couldn’t re­sist. I left my son and care­fully waded into the swamp and grabbed the frog. I got it just right. My body tin­gled with the joy of the hunt. I held it up and re­turned to shore where ev­ery­one gath­ered around. I handed the frog to my son, and he held it out to the kids. Par­ents looked on, some anx­iously. The frog let out a bar­baric squeak. My son held it for a mo­ment longer and then, sat­is­fied, let it go.

Sud­denly I re­alised that I was soak­ing wet and won­dered whether I’d brought a towel to sit on in the car.

Now on one hand, that mo­ment was glo­ri­ous. A frog in the hand is worth, well, it’s just great. But on the other, it was a re­minder that kids to­day have a re­la­tion­ship with na­ture that’s far dif­fer­ent than mine was. Ev­ery so of­ten they may still get their hands on a big wild frog, but such ex­pe­ri­ences are far more rare and far more likely to be cir-

cum­scribed by a park­ing lot, par­ents and rules of en­gage­ment.

This is a big change from not only my own child­hood but also the ex­pe­ri­ences of chil­dren go­ing back thou­sands of years. Kids have ex­plored and grabbed stuff since the be­gin­ning of hu­mankind. We may not have all the in­tel on the lives of hunter-gath­er­ers liv­ing 10 000 years ago, but we can be cer­tain that their chil­dren waded through muck and ex­plored.

Peo­ple are mov­ing to ur­ban ar­eas where it’s harder to be part of the wild. But the thing I’m most con­scious of, as a father and as some­one who has spent the past decade study­ing na­ture, is that this dis­con­nect dra­mat­i­cally in­creases the odds that kids will get sick. It may even de­tract from our kids’ abil­ity to ma­ture into happy, well-ad­justed adults. A frog in the hand, as it turns out, may be a sort of mi­cro­bial medicine.

There is some ev­i­dence that to in­crease your kids’ odds of be­ing al­lergy-free, they need to be ex­posed to many kinds of mi­crobes. This ex­po­sure teaches their im­mune sys­tem which mi­crobes are good, which are bad, and which are nei­ther.

Bil­lions of mi­crobes live on your skin. They also live in your gut, mouth and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­where else on your body. They form in­cred­i­bly com­plex, in­ter­con­nected com­mu­ni­ties, called mi­cro­biomes, that sci­en­tists like me are just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate. Hu­man be­ings rely on th­ese micro­organ­isms for their health and very ex­is­tence.

But the shift to ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments has caused some of th­ese species to dis­ap­pear. Their ab­sence puts all of us – in­clud­ing, in some cases, our kids – at greater risk for al­ler­gies, asthma, in­flam­ma­tory bowel dis­ease and even de­men­tia.

Kids raised in ru­ral en­vi­ron­ments rarely had au­toim­mune dis­or­ders or al­lergy-re­lated con­di­tions. In ur­ban ar­eas, th­ese dis­or­ders are much more com­mon. In fact, half the kids at the pond that day had some sort of food sen­si­tiv­ity or al­lergy. We need to re­con­nect our kids with the mi­crobes they need and, more gen­er­ally, with the wild they need, how­ever tiny that piece of wild may be.

Some reme­dies are easy. For ex­am­ple, here are some of the things we do in my fam­ily.

When we wash our hands, we use soap and wa­ter only. We steer clear of an­timi­cro­bial gels, wipes, and cloth­ing con­tain­ing tri­closan. Us­ing prod­ucts con­tain­ing tri­closan can im­pair your im­mune re­sponse be­cause it will kill mi­crobes across the board – the good bac­te­ria as well as the pathogens.

We pick wild fruit. I’ve planted an ur­ban or­chard that my kids and the squir­rels love. In some stud­ies, chil­dren with ac­cess to a green space or gar­den con­tain­ing na­tive plants have more di­verse skin mi­crobes and are less likely to de­velop al­ler­gies.

We buy or­ganic pro­duce when we can – not be­cause it’s pes­ti­cide-free, but be­cause the plants are more likely to have re­tained ben­e­fi­cial mi­crobes.

When we shop, we stay in the perime­ter of the su­per­mar­ket, where the fruits and veg­eta­bles are kept.

We try to avoid sugar, which feeds the bad mi­crobes, and eat live foods like yo­ghurt, kim­chi and ke­fir. Live foods may or may not help gut mi­crobes, but they cer­tainly can’t hurt.

We don’t use an­tibi­otics, which lay waste to many ben­e­fi­cial mi­crobes, un­less one of the kids needs an an­tibi­otic for a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion. We also avoid meat pro­duced us­ing an­tibi­otics. It can con­tain drug residue as well as an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant pathogens, which makes it dan­ger­ous for kids.

We let our kids chew their nails if the mood strikes. This prac­tice, along with thumb suck­ing, has ac­tu­ally been shown to re­duce cer­tain al­lergy risks.

This is all based on the lat­est sci­ence. But the truth is, un­til we know more, the best thing for kids – in or­der to keep their minds go­ing, in­still a sense of ad­ven­ture and won­der and just maybe keep their lit­tle mi­cro­biomes healthy – is to get them out into na­ture, with the space and free­dom to ex­plore on their terms. Of course, ex­plor­ing the big wild is awe­some. But if that’s not pos­si­ble, a stinky ur­ban pond with a bull­frog or even just a nar­row band of trees will suf­fice.

A few weeks ago my wife and I took our kids to the beach. We stayed at a friend’s house that was sep­a­rated from the wa­ter by a half dozen pine trees and some rocks. From that thin band of for­est, the kids gath­ered sticks and vines and built a raft. They rolled dozens of logs, peeled off bark, twisted vines, dug through dirt, stacked rocks and went up and down the shore gath­er­ing build­ing ma­te­rial.

When it was all built to their sat­is­fac­tion, they put the raft in the wa­ter and sat on it. Ob­vi­ously, it sank. They couldn’t have been hap­pier. Then they spent the rest of the day try­ing to make a net.

They did all this in a wild area far smaller than the one I ex­plored as a child. And yet it was wild enough for them to imag­ine the world, to imag­ine an odyssey, to imag­ine a con­nec­tion to our an­ces­tors, and to col­lect some friendly mi­crobes on which, in one way or another, their fu­tures de­pend.

Rob Dunn is the au­thor of The Wild Life of Our Bod­ies and The Man Who Touched His Own Heart

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