We are past the full “Worm Moon” of March, and spring stirs the soil to life, while winking at us from blossoms above. The soil is incredibly alive, with billions of microbes and bacteria, creatures like worms and nematodes, and great strands of mycelium, which eventually fruit into what we call mushrooms.
With more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than inhabitants in New York City, the teeming aliveness of the soil is a fairly new scientific understanding and a wide-open field of study. The Missouri Botanical Garden offers brand new classes on this topic, called “Don’t Kill Your Soil!”
Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” writes about the importance of microbes on the immune system in his latest book for adults “The Nature Principle.” Indeed, volumes are written about the theories and benefits of walking barefoot and having direct contact with the earth and soil.
Children, especially young children, need sensory activities everyday to help them make sense of their world; activities like playing in the sand, pouring water, making mud pies, or simply digging in the dirt with sticks, which is deeply satisfying to them.
As a nature teacher with a practical eye, I see the inexorable march towards safety surfaces and plastic equipment, and understand their necessity. I also feel the obligation to encourage parents to purposefully and intentionally put kids in direct contact with the earth, and with soil, either by letting them go barefoot in summer, by setting up a “mud kitchen” in the backyard, by finding an odd place in the garden for “Army Man Land,” or by creating a fairy garden with sea shells and fairy furniture made of sticks and twisty ties.
There are a couple of phrases that come to mind when it comes to dirt: “Dirt is not dirty, people are dirty.” And, “We all must eat a peck of dirt before we die.” Words matter, and there seems to be a new distinction emerging between dirt and soil: dirt is dead, and soil is alive.
While on my lecturing circuit, a teacher came up with a story about raising her child in New York City, where the playgrounds were disgusting, strewn with hypodermic needles and spit. She went to her doctor and the wise doctor replied, “Well, you have two choices. You can either let your child play in the sandbox and build his immune system, or you can keep him out of the sandbox and pay for therapy for the rest of his life.”
Create a compost pile, play in the mulch, turn a flower bed into a mud pit, get out the microscope, dig for worms, flip over bricks in search of roly polys, bring out the little construction trucks and sacrifice the plastic jungle animals to the teeming life of the soil. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the immune system, and it’s absolutely free.