Forest schools and the microbiome
We've heard all about eating for your gut, and your gut microbiome. More fibre, more plants. But what about the plant matter and natural environments around you? Does being in nature affect your microbiome?
One study showed that dipping hands into soil daily for two weeks changed not only the skin microbiome, but the gut microbiome of adults. And a 10 week pre-school outdoor nature play intervention in Hong Kong changed 2-5 year old kids' gut microbiomes, as well as lowering their stress levels and frequency of angry outbursts. As with many microbiome studies, it's not clear whether the effects on the microbiome are driving the psychological changes.
But the positive effects of nature play was clear. In addition to improving stress and anger, prosocial behaviours went up in the intervention group (not in the control), as did a sense of connectedness to and responsibility towards nature - an important trait to foster in the next generation.
Another study run across 10 childcare centres in Finland showed that kids who spent up to 2 hours per day playing on a 'forest floor' planting and peat in the yard (compared to gravel), had different skin and gut microbiomes. Perhaps more importantly, the ratio of anti-inflammatory to pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-10:IL-17A ratio) increased in those playing in the grassy environments. Alongside an increase in Treg cells, these findings indicate improve immune health in kids exposed to more nature.
Forest schools and bush kindergartens have really taken off in the past few years. From first hand experience, I can confirm they are lots of fun (even as an attending parent). But perhaps they're onto some microbial benefits too.