Playing in dirt isn’t just fun, it’s essential for a child’s developing gut microbiome, so muddy-play actually impacts their overall health and immunity.

You may already be aware of eco-systems in nature, where many different plant and animal species
depend and benefit on each other for their co-existence.

But have you ever stopped to think about the tiny ecosystem evolving in your child’s gut? Imagine a
teeming universe of trillions of microscopic creatures – bacteria, fungi and other microbes all surviving or
thriving in your child’s body. Together, this colony is called the gut microbiome. When it’s happy,
your kid is happy.

Ages 3-5 holiday club image 4

The Microbiome – your child’s inner ecosystem

For nature-loving parents like yourself, the presence of this biome holds the blueprint for enhancing your
kid’s health, because if you can learn how easily you can support them in cultivating a thriving biome,
you’ll unlock a world of well-being for your child.

How is a healthy gut biome helpful for your kid?

  • It breaks down food
  • It absorbs nutrients from the food
  • It influences a strong immune system
  • It produces vitamins and short-chain fatty acids to nourish the gut lining
  • It regulates mood
  • It even influences brain development

A healthy gut biome doesn’t consist of “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria.
It consists of a balance of microbes:

  • bacteria,
  • fungi,
  • archaea (these are the ones responsible for proliferation).

The potentially detrimental bacteria like viruses and phages, we want in moderation.
When these outnumber the beneficial bacteria we end up with inflammation, among other things.

HYGIENE CAN BE HARMFUL [web text box] [Have you heard of the hygiene hypothesis?
It suggests that our overly sanitised environments might be reducing our exposure to beneficial
microbes. This lack of exposure, particularly in early childhood, is breaking down our immune
systems and could be contributing to a rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases. Studies have
even shown connections between the makeup of altered gut microbiota and conditions like
asthma, eczema, and allergies.]

Imagine if ensuring your child’s healthy gut biome means enhancing their resilience toward mental health
conditions like depression or anxiety.
What we want for our children is a microbiome with a diverse population, ie. as much variety in the biome
as possible.

Contradictory to popular thought, children aren’t born with a beautifully established biome. Their gut biome changes and co-evolves based on what the child eats and is exposed to throughout their early developing years.

why muddy play is good for children's immune systems

How can simple muddy play boost healthy gut biomes in children?

Compared to the studies done on adults, relatively little is known about the gut biomes of children. But we
do know that the greater their exposure to a diverse range of environments and foods, the better the
proliferation of their microbiome colonies.

There are several aspects of nature play that benefit a robust microbiome.

Why muddy play is a healthy child’s best friend

  • Soil, clay, mud, beach sand, river silt – all of it, especially in less manicured landscapes, are
    rich in microbes.
  • Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, microbes found in soil, are known for their health-promoting
  • Studies are showing that increased exposure to soil microbes can encourage the growth of these
    beneficial bacteria, leading to a more balanced biome.

All of this ensures they come into contact with a healthy dose of many different microbes from rich, loamy
soils and plant life.

Why playing on outdoor nature trails is the best type of nature play

  • A wider variety of wild plant and animal species occur on the mountains and greenbelts beyond
    what is available in our often over-manicured gardens
  • On nature trails, the environment isn’t only rich in natural wild fauna but imagine what all the
    dogs and horses leave behind from their environments! It’s a bacterial smorgasbord.
  • As the soils in these natural environments break down and decompose, they offer an even richer
    diversity in the microscopic creatures who feed on them

As you can see, it’s not just ‘outside play’ that’s necessary. To expose little ones to the potential of a robust microbiome they need to come in contact with wild nature and natural forest landscapes.

How Forest School children benefit from nature play

When forest school children play outdoors on the nature trails, they don’t only sit on a blanket under
trees playing with toys.

  • They engage in robust muddy play with plentiful exposure to soil, and decaying plant and animal life.
  • They collect sticks from under forest canopies, peel off the bark and whittle them into pencils
  • They drag logs through the mud and prop them against each other to build forts, harbours, bridges to cross the river, and raft boats…
  • They rummage and dig and scavenge along river banks for creatures and mosses and all sorts of things alive and growing in nature
  • They climb a variety of trees (and learn about them!)
  • They rummage through plants, explore roots along ravines, turn over every leaf looking for insects and stick their noses in a large range of flowers to smell what bees smell
  • They shape art from clay we find under tree roots
  • They explore carefully and safely mushrooms of all different shapes and sizes
  • They do cartwheels and handstands and make autumn leaf angels

And when it’s snack time, we don’t sanitise their hands before eating (unless very necessary!!), we simply
dust them off! Imagine that.

why muddy play is good for your child's gut

At the root of good gut health is love

Dr. Zach Bush said, “as human beings, our neurologic capacity begins with our connection to the microbiome”.

While it takes a doctor to decree knowledge like this as viable, it takes a parent to notice that a
child who spends more time outside, is healthier on the inside.
Beyond that, it only takes a human to realise, that we are not separate from nature. When we embrace her – physically connecting with the soil beneath her roots -, her soils nourish us right back, embedding in us all the microintelligence we need for a life of healthful abundance.

By embracing messy outdoor play in the wilder mountain paths and nature trails of Cape Town as a regular component of your child’s upbringing, you not only ensure your child develops a strong bond with nature, but you ensure their long-term well-being because of that physical bond with nature – dirt and all.

Interested in a weekly dose of nature play for your child?
Get more info on our weekly sessions for 3-5-year-olds or our weekly sessions for 5-10-year-olds.

Is your child ready for playgroup next year?

Forest House, is the first forest school playschool and enrolments are open for 2025.