A hand holds a flower with a dirt bulb, Kids learning through farm based education

Embrace the Dirt: The Benefits of Farm-Based Education

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By Tammy Marshall

Get ready to get dirty!

Yes, I said it. Dirt under your nail beds, mud caked in your hair, stains on your clothes. The whole shebang!

These aren’t my orders. These are direct orders from the doctor.

According to Head Start, a study in 2009 showed that obesity rates among preschoolers is at a whopping 18.4 percent.  That’s more than tripled from a study in 1971 that had obesity rates among preschoolers at 5.8 percent.  And that baby weight stays put for 60 percent of these little guys and dolls. That means that the majority of overweight preschoolers will become obese adults and all the health concerns and life hardships that come with living with obesity.  Or not living, that is. These little guys and gals are already being predicted to have shorter life spans than previous generations. That’s some harsh reality brought to you by Head Start or the Office of Administration for Children and Families.

So what’s the cure, you may ask?

It’s really pretty simple: unstructured play outside.

Head Start says, “Children today spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation.”

And the results are kids who are less happy and overweight. Kids who play outside are—according to a study done in 2005—fitter, have stronger immune systems (exposure to dirt!) and have greater autonomy.  

And did I mention that playing outside is a known stress reducer?

There is a lot of research out there that links anxiety and stress to hampering learning. For a previous post on this very subject, please visit here. {http://www.familyoptimized.com/calming-influence-strong-kids/}

This simple solution to child development is not a new philosophy, however. In fact, it was a big movement back in the early 1900s led by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. His philosophy on the education and development of the child lives on today. If you’ve ever heard of a Waldorf School, or Waldorf education then you’ve heard of Steiner’s teaching philosophy. There are 1,080 Waldorf/Steiner schools in 64 countries around the world and Waldorf kindergartens in 70 countries.

“So what does this have to do with playing outside?” you may ask.

Well, Rudolf Steiner was once quoted as saying, “Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility−these three forces are the very nerve of education.”

In other words, he’s saying to teach autonomy and give children creative free time to develop their creative imaginations.

One way to do that is to get back outside and let them explore. In addition to well-trained teachers, part of this education philosophy involves finding things in nature that develop learning.

In my home we count eggs. We take care of the chickens. It’s that simple.

This little activity is packed full of science education. Raising chickens is something urban and country families can both engage in. This hands-on learning teaches children biology, responsibility, empathy, communication skills and the ability to handle changes to their environment.  If raising chickens is going a bit too far, consider buying a pack of seeds and planting. Watch your children’s eyes light up as they learn about where their food comes from. That gets them in the dirt, gets their minds going and gets their bodies moving. It’s a win, win, win.

If the jury’s still out for you on this messy learning philosophy, here are a few simple things you can do right now that’ll give you the opportunity to put a toe in the mud without really getting dirty.

Visit Parks

Chances are your town has at least one park. Chances are also good that the park comes with a parks department. Consider visiting the park and learning about what the parks department does. Be outside. When you feel the sun shining down you’ll want to do even more. Maybe even volunteer!

Find a Kid-Friendly Hiking Group

My personal favorite is the group Hike It Baby. Any outdoor excursion with kids at any age involves a lot of planning. With babies or kids under five that planning involves diapers, first-aid kits and snacks—plus, a nice pair of shoes for the climb and a back-friendly pack is essential. All that planning involves a lot of work, and you don’t know if your small child is going to be having a tantrum or if that nature excursion is going to accidentally bump up against nap time. My suggestion is to join a group or find a few friends to go with. That way if you brought the wrong kit or the wrong snack someone else may have you covered.

Discover a Waldorf in Your Area

If the great outdoors is simply not your thing and if chicken poop makes you nauseous, perhaps finding an educational facility to do the outdoor part for you is the answer. If you don’t have a Waldorf school in your area, look for a summer camp that ventures into nature. The kids will still come home dirty, but you won’t have to get mud on your hands.

Visit a Farm

If you’re not fortunate enough to live and play in the Pacific Northwest like us—and have farms dotting the entire country landscape surrounding the city—see if there are farms in your area. In the Portland area the blackberry and blueberry farms outside the metropolitan city are an absolute blast! A tasty blast!

Tips For Playing in the Dirt

My only rule for playing in the dirt is: Do Not Throw the Dirt. Dirt is almost guaranteed to have rocks in it. When rocks are thrown and hit you they hurt. Play in it, don’t sling it.

Think About Studying It

Visit your local library and check out a book on dirt. See how to tell if it’s packed with nutrients or needs a little composting.

Put Some Seeds In It

This one’s really simple. Go to the garden store. Buy seeds. You can even buy dirt. Plant seeds with dirt in a planter. Watch the seeds grow into plants. It’s fun. I promise.

Mostly, have fun. Life’s too serious most of the time. Dirt shouldn’t be taken as seriously as life. Unlike us it’ll always be here.

About the Author

Tammy Marshall

Growing up on a farm in wheat country also known as The Palouse, Tammy Marshall spent most of her childhood jumping off hay stacks and playing with cows. Instead of straight into the media, she went into social work after graduating with a degree in Journalism. There she worked with teen moms teaching parenting and life skills and working with behaviorally impaired and at-risk youth at the surrounding schools. She now freelances full-time when she isn't feeding her chickens or raising her plucky daughter. She has her own blog called http://www.mycyclicvomitingsyndrome.com.

Featured image by Benjamin Combs via Unsplash

Content image by USACE via Flickr under CC license.

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