Nature play can boost children’s skin microbiota and immune system

A groundbreaking study shows that children who play in nature play spaces develop superior immune functions.

Rocks, grass and dirt may be all that your kids need to have a healthy immune system. A new study found that children who played in natural spaces, with dirt, grass and other vegetation had a more diverse skin microbiota.


Nature Play study details


Researchers worked with 75 children between the age of 3 and 5 across four day-care centres in Finland. The daycare centres were fitted with plants like dwarf shrubs, blueberries, crowberry, and mosses accessible to the children. Children played in these natural spaces, called intervention sites, for an average of 1.5 hours per day, crafting natural materials, and playing games within the renovated play spaces.

After 28 days, researchers measured the skin and gut microbial diversity of children from these four intervention daycare centres, and compared their results to four standard daycares, without rich green spaces. They found that all children who played in the green spaces had a higher diversity of commensal skin microbiota, particularly of the Proteobacteria and Gammaproteobacterial groups, compared to children who played in standard daycares. The gut microbiota also had a distinct pattern in children from the intervention daycares, showing a decrease in the abundance of bacteria of the Costridiales group and an increase in the abundance of bacteria of the Ruminococcaceae group, which contain butyrate-producing bacterial species.

The children that played on the nature-oriented intervention daycares also had a high ratio of two biomolecules: anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-10 vs pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-17A. This high ratio was indicative of optimal anti-inflammatory functions. This study also found that the bacteria Faecalibacterium prausnitzii was associated with decreased expression of the pro-inflammatory biomolecule IL-17A

This study is the first to test the so-called “biodiversity hypothesis” in children. This hypothesis proposes that immune-related problems in city-dwellers are linked to a lack of exposure to a microbe-rich environment, such as the one found in forests and other natural spaces.


Why do these findings matter?


A key implication of this study is that you can improve the immune system of children by simply letting them play with dirt and plants. This study is the first to provide direct evidence that children can acquire a healthy skin microbiota and optimal immune function by being exposed to a natural, microbe-rich, environment. Only 1.5 hours per day over a period of one month was enough to produce positive changes in the skin microbiota and immune functions of these children.


A Functional Medicine perspective on Nature Play


The findings of this new study are in line with our philosophy that promotes the establishment and maintenance of healthy skin and gut microbiota. At the Australian Centre for Functional Medicine, we understand that the human microbiota has important roles in different aspects of our health. We incorporate the latest findings in human microbiota research with our standard practice. Hence, we are ensuring the optimal care of our patients.