Children's immune systems can be significantly boosted by playing in a natural environment, recent research has found. The study, which was carried out in Finland, looked at a group of 75 children aged 3-5, who went to ten daycare centres in two Finnish cities.
They had been used to having play areas in gravel yards, but for the study had their play spaces upgraded to mini-forest environments. Within a month, their immune systems showed considerable improvements. The children spent an average of 90 minutes a day outside and were actively encouraged to engage in messy play with the plants and soil.
At the end of 28 days, the children who had been playing in the mini-forests had 33% more microbes on their skin than those who had played in gravel yards and their gut microbe levels increased too. Levels of proteins and cells related to the immune system in their blood, like T cells and cytokine (an anti-inflammatory) improved too.
These results are important, because the number of autoimmune diseases (caused when the immune system starts attacking the body it's meant to be protecting) are on the increase across the western world. It is thought that the reason this is happening is that children are exposed to far fewer microbes than was the case in the past. As a result, their immune systems don't get challenged as often, so they make mistakes, sometimes leading to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and eczema. Children who are exposed to a natural environment show boosts to their immune systems, meaning they are less likely to be affected by autoimmune diseases.
The Finnish research seems to reinforce a 2019 report from the UK's Society for Public Health, which found that playing in a natural outdoor environment was important for building a robust immune system. However, it also stressed that cleanliness was vital when preparing and eating food.
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