Each week subscribers to The Times can receive an environment-themed email newsletter. This one is about children and soil. It’s reproduced in full here with permission.

When was the last time you got your hands dirty? Not just a bit mucky, but really caked in mud? And how about your children?

According to children’s charity the Country Trust, some children never have. The charity spoke to 700 children aged seven to 10, and 14 per cent said they had never got their hands dirty by digging or playing in soil. A further 13 per cent said they had hardly ever done so, and 29 per cent said they had only got their hands a bit dirty. Only 43 per cent said they had got really dirty playing in the mud.

So what? What does it matter if our kids are tidy minded and would rather not go rooting through the mud? According to campaigners it matters a great deal. The Country Trust says the “disconnect between children and soil is of growing concern”. Soil health in the UK is declining – with implications for food productivity, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Yet few of us realise. Some 80 per cent of the UK population lives in towns and cities and our only contact with food is on the supermarket shelf. This all starts in childhood. Jill Attenborough, CEO of the Country Trust, said: “Half of all primary school children see soil as nothing more than dirt, but actually our lives depend on it. If we are all to thrive, we need to get our hands in the soil, learn how to make our soils healthier and become soil champions.”

The charity is now running a rather unusual mass citizen science campaign to help raise awareness of the problem and get children’s hands in the soil. They want children (or adults) to bury their old cotton underwear (or any other cotton garment) in the garden. For those without outdoor space, a window box or plant pot filled with local soil will do. Eight weeks later they’ll be asked to dig them up. The more holes in the pants, the healthier the soil. The results will be uploaded to an interactive soil health map.

As Dr Dan Evans, a soil scientist at Cranfield University, put it: “From the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat, we all depend on healthy soil. Plant Your Pants is about helping children get stuck into soil and learn about why it’s so important.”

If you decide to take part I’d love to hear how you get on.

Until next week.

ben.spencer@sundaytimes.co.uk @Ben_Spencer

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