Changing a child’s playground from gravel to natural forest floor could give them a better immune system in just a month by exposing them to a wider variety of skin and gut bacteria. Just as old wisdom says, new research suggests city kids could become healthier if they spend more time playing outside in the dirt.
These results were recently gathered from a trial conducted in Finland by the University of Helsinki. As reported in the journal Science Advances, the researchers studied 75 children aged 3 to 5 in 10 daycare centers in two Finnish cities, Lahti and Tampere, and sought to see how a change in their play environment also altered their skin and their gut microbiota. as immune markers in their blood.
Four of the daycares received a renovation that turned their gravel playgrounds into a field of forest soil, dirt and grasses. As witnesses, three daycares already had this arrangement and three others kept their old gravel playground. A month after the change, scientists collected skin, blood and poo samples from all of the children.
Despite just a few weeks, the researchers noticed a dramatic difference. The microbiota of children in remodeled daycares had quickly changed to more closely resemble the microbiomes of children who attended nature-based daycares. This change was also reflected in their immune systems, with the children in the upgraded day care centers developing a higher ratio of anti-inflammatory to pro-inflammatory proteins in their blood, indicating that their immune system was in good shape.
“We were surprised that the results were so clear even though we did not have as many participants as we had hoped,” said Aki Sinkkonen, study author and researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland in Turku, in a press release.
There are many connections between the trillions of microorganisms that live beside your body and your health at large. It can influence everything from your risk for certain illnesses and food cravings to your mental health and maybe even your personality. Researchers are barely learning how bacteria exert this influence on our bodies, with many recent studies seeking to understand the interface between human cells and the microbiome.
Whatever the finer mechanism, it is clear that our environment and our lifestyles can dramatically affect the richness and diversity of bacteria in our microbiome. Previously, scientists found that the gut microbiome of traditional hunter-gatherers in the Amazon is richer than that of industrialized urban populations in the United States. In turn, this could explain why many people in fully industrialized parts of the world are born with certain autoimmune diseases like asthma and allergies.
As this new playground study shows, however, a little work can go a long way in a very short time.