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of responding quickly and accurately to germs, it reacts slowly, leaving you open
to more frequent and severe illness. And when kids don’t get exposed to enough
dirt, their immune systems start making the sort of serious mistakes that can lead
to autoimmune illnesses, allergies, and asthma. When your immune system is
exposed to plenty of dirt on a regular basis starting when you’re very young, it
gets the regular workouts it needs to build up defenses and stay ready for action.
Given this evidence, it makes sense that all children, from infancy on,
should play outside, touch plants, and dig in the soil. We should not be afraid
if they get their hands and the rest of their bodies dirty. It doesn’t hurt us to eat
a little dirt. It may just make us healthier in the long run.
Children Need Time Outdoors
Over the past decades, there has been an effort to make playgrounds safer
and easier to maintain. Unfortunately, as a result, many outdoor play spaces
became sterile, and some completely devoid of nature. Grass and trees have
often been removed to clear space for large pieces of climbing equipment and
the resilient ground cover that must surround the equipment. Sometimes play-
grounds are completely comprised of resilient ground cover and man-made
surfacing rather than natural materials. In these spaces, children have little
opportunity to connect with nature.
Nevertheless, the movement toward more natural play environments for
young children is strong and growing. Recognition that these fabricated indus-
trial environments are not serving children’s needs, along with concern that
natural spaces are disappearing, is producing a movement to connect children
with nature. One example has been the development of the Nature Action
Collaborative for Children (NACC), which has sponsored the Working Forum
on Nature Education, beginning in 2006. NACC is an interdisciplinary group
comprised of sixteen hundred members from six continents, including early
childhood educators, environmental educators, health specialists, landscape
architects, and environmental activists.
Working groups of NACC have various goals, one being to create natu-
ral play spaces for children in preschool settings, schools, and communities.
Nature Explore, a collaboration of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions
Educational Research Foundation, has been a leader in this movement and a
sponsor of the Working Forum on Nature Education. Nature Explore defines
a set of principles to use in designing an outdoor classroom, provides certifica-
tion to programs that follow these principles, supports staff development, and
encourages family involvement. There are currently over one hundred certified
Nature Explore classrooms in the United States.
Why Garden? • 9