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Back to nature: Getting dirty boosts child development, say experts

Children play in a sandbox in the city of Kuki, Saitama Prefecture, on May 5, 2017. (Mainichi)

Many parents can relate to scolding their children when they come home covered in mud, but while theme parks that allow children to move their bodies without getting dirty have been increasing, being able to get down and dirty in nature is good for child development, experts claim.

    At Miyakubo Play Park in a residential area of the city of Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, young children play covered in mud. Unlike other parks for children, there is no playground equipment and children are encouraged to engage in original and imaginative play. At the park which opened in March of last year, children can play with rope, start fires, make old-fashioned toys and participate in other learning activities, but the main attraction is the rice paddy-like mud pit. There, children waddle through the mud or use small shovels to explore the feeling of touching the mud. In the summer, water striders, crayfish and frogs also appear in the mud.

    One little boy who looked to be about 6 years old carefully tried to wade through the mud with his feet in a basin, apparently to avoid going into the mud bare-footed. Even though he tried to move carefully, he fell flat on his rear-end in the mud while attempting to move around, and laughter erupted from the surrounding children. Maybe the feeling of falling down in the squishy mud appealed to the boy, but he began to play more in the mud, with the children who had observed him joining in one after the other. Not one child was playing with a gaming device.

    "Instead of being passive, the children come up with their own games together," said Kyoko Wada, a representative of "Ichikawa Kodomo no Sotoasobi no Kai" (Ichikawa children's outdoor play group). From crawling babies all the way to elementary school students, they all energetically run around the area and enjoy playing in the mud together. Fourth-grade student Aoi Taniguchi, and her younger brother in the first grade often come to the park together. "In summer they play until they are covered up to their necks in mud," said their mother Emi. "They don't catch colds very often anymore either."

    Playing in nature while coming into contact with dirt and insects has an impact on child development. "By using all five senses to experience the outdoors, children are able to feel that they are a part of nature," says Michio Kawasaki, specially appointed professor of developmental psychology at Takada Junior College. Different from standardized man-made things that are sold as products, nature and living things that are a part of it have a form and a shape -- they move, they have a smell and a certain feeling when you touch them with your hands and even have a taste as well. Surrounded by the diversity of nature, children keep developing daily.

    A child scoops up mud with a shovel in the city of Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, on April 25, 2017. (Mainichi)

    "Humans are a part of nature. I think through being connected to nature, we can be surprised or moved, comforted or soothed," Kawasaki explains.

    While "adventure parks" like Miyakubo Play Park are popping up all around the country, there are apparently cases where the children who go to the park are afraid to play in mud because they worry their parents will scold them for getting dirty. "Parents who forbid their children from playing in the mud because they hate when they get their bodies or clothes dirty are a problem," said Wada. "It's a shame that children's chances to play decrease because of the circumstances of adults."

    Kawasaki has this advice for both children and parents who are not used to playing in nature, mud or otherwise: "Try sitting or rolling around in the grass or wading into a river barefoot with the intention of 'trying out a new sensation.' Take steps to make those experiences interesting."

    Still, the reality is that many parents are anxious about how hygienic it is to have their children play in mud or sand. In a 2013 opinion poll targeting mothers of children between the ages of 1 and 5 conducted by toy import and sales company BorneLund Corp., over 70 percent said they wanted their children to play in the sandbox, but 40 percent answered that they only let their children play in the sand less than once a week. The reason many mothers gave were worries about hygiene and contamination.

    According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, 60 percent of parks nationwide had sandboxes in fiscal 2004, but that number decreased to only 40 percent by the 2013 fiscal year. Due to the sandboxes being contaminated with the feces of animals such as dogs and cats becoming an issue, municipal governments attempted countermeasures such as fences to keep animals out or covering the sandboxes with plastic sheets, but there are also cases where new parks have been built without sandboxes altogether.

    However, according to professor Hiroyuki Kasama of Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts, an early childhood education researcher who studies sandbox play, there are many elements of child development brought out by playing in the sand. "If a sandbox is dirty, then adults or other members of society need to put in the effort to clean it," he says.

    Kasama investigated sandbox play at a day care center in Kyoto for six years beginning in 2005. From watching the children from the time they were less than 1 year old to the time they left day care, he reportedly found that the ideal place for various areas of child development, such as sensory and emotional growth, motor skills and socialization, was the sandbox, and their growth could be seen through how they played there.

    Tactile and visual interaction with sand starts with children less than 1 year old, before transforming into creative play, such as rolling mud or sand into balls or playing make-believe, at around age 2 to 3. From roughly around the latter half of their second year, children begin to also speak while they play. Another advantage of watching children interact in the sandbox is that you "can see their change and growth," Kasama said.

    "Sand can be irritating for children, and there are many kids who don't like it at first. Forcing them to play in it will just upset them more, so it's better if the parent holds the child and takes the initiative to touch and play with the sand first themselves," advises Kasama. Because things in children's line of sight attract their attention, parents can first let the coarse sand fall from the palm of their hand or fill a cup with wet sand and make some sort of shape or other actions to get children interested.

    "It can act as important communication between parents and children," Kasama explains. "If parents show children simple ways to play with the sand while saying things like 'cool, huh?' or 'look I did it' here and there to communicate, children will naturally move onto playing in the sand themselves."

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