21 October 2020
Being able to play outside can be hugely beneficial for children. Whether that’s structured play or free time to be creative on their own the benefits of allowing young people to engage with outdoor play environments are many. In fact, the Open University’s OPENspace Research Centre found that it can improve everything, from wellbeing to life expectancy. It’s also increasingly being identified as a key component in positive mental health.
Improving mental health
Many children feel more able to be themselves outside. They may feel restricted or overly observed in indoor environment but find the ability to connect to something wider when they are playing outdoors. Children often feel excited when they are outside in the elements and it can be a much more tactile and tangible place than a classroom, making the outdoors more stimulating. Outdoor play can help children to express themselves and form better relationships with other children and with adults, which can be crucial to positive mental health and wellbeing within themselves.
Social and emotional development improves
There is clear evidence that outdoor play helps to improve mental health and supports better social and emotional development. Being outside in nature, for example, can help children to feel calmer and has a noticeably positive impact on hyperactivity and conditions such as ADHD. Many studies have identified that sport and physical activity are linked to better mental wellbeing and happiness levels are higher for those who lead a more active life. The science of playing outside also highlights how beneficial this can be – for example, when we’re outdoors our bodies can naturally produce Vitamin D and this releases serotonin into the brain. A lack of Vitamin D has been linked to many social and emotional issues, including depression and inability to regulate emotions and moods.
A self-esteem boost and openness to learning
One recent study found that exercising for just five minutes a day in a natural environment provided a significant self-esteem boost for young people and improved overall mental health and wellbeing. Stress and anxiety can be relieved by outdoor play, which significantly reduces the amount of cortisol in the brain. Outdoor play also provides a time when children can get away from stressful environments and from devices, such as smart phones. It’s an opportunity to let off some steam and clear the mind out in the fresh air. Many educators have found that without this children can become restless and dissatisfied, closed off to learning opportunities. However, short periods of outdoor play break up the monotony of the classroom and help to ensure that students return back ready to focus and learn.
There are many different ways to create outdoor environments that encourage play and learning, whether that’s with wildlife areas or outdoor resources that are designed to teach in a targeted way, such as focusing on STEM subjects. Most children will benefit from regular outdoor play that is achievable but challenging and which provides them with the opportunity to be themselves.