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The Importance of Outdoor Play for our Children’s Mental Health

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kay Miller, MD and co-founder of The Den Kit Co, explains the importance of Outdoor Play for our Children’s Mental Health. Kay left her post as Head Teacher of a rural Shropshire primary school (where she also qualified as a forest school practitioner) to concentrate on growing our beloved brand.

"Play is the highest form of research"

Play is vital for a healthy childhood and is enshrined as a human right*. However, latest research suggests that children spent *less* time playing outside during lockdown than ever before. This resulted in the least fit generation of children in history. In addition to the impact on physical health, this loss of outdoor play is impacting our children’s mental health – their happiness and well-being. If we are to recover from the pandemic truly, this mental impact must be addressed.

As educational practitioners, we all know how most children in our care would spend their entire day in an outdoor play space – whatever the weather. Our early years classroom had an outdoor/indoor policy, and 90% of our children would spend their time outside.  They voted with their feet.

Young boy and girl climb over green plastic crates

You only have to hear the audible roar as children charge into the playground at break time to know how much they need to be outside. A natural outdoor environment provides a continuously evolving and changing space to explore. Seasons come and go, the weather varies, and shadows, seed heads, puddles, and ice can appear and disappear rapidly. Children love this unstructured environment, un-governed by adults; they can try things out, take risks, and make mistakes.

And it’s official. Considerable research shows evidence that children’s mental health and well-being are enhanced by spending time outdoors. A connection to nature is a basic human need, boosting overall health and well-being. 

"Modern life has created a distance between humans and nature that now we're realising isn't good in a whole host of ways"

1. Reduces stress levels

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, in ‘4 Ways Going Outside Can Improve Your Mental Health, According to Research’ reported that salivary cortisol levels (the natural chemical found in your body that is associated with stress) significantly decreased when the time was spent in nature, with the greatest impact coming from spending 20 to 30 minutes outside. 

Her research suggests that green space exposure increases parasympathetic nervous activity. This system “undoes” the cause of stress caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Not only does this exposure result in the sense of calmness, but it also lowers heart rate and blood pressure.

2. Encourages exercise

For children, being outside in nature is a major motivating factor for physical activity. Climbing, rolling, running, bending, stretching, and balancing are just a few examples of the exercise the nature gym will encourage. Exercise not only develops muscle, strength and a healthy heart and circulation but also releases endorphins, which boost mood. Outdoor exercise leaves children feeling rejuvenated, both mentally and physically – and the effect of exercise on worry and anxiety is rapid and effective.

3. Improves mood and diminishes worry

Spending time in nature helps minds rest by allowing presence at the moment. Exposure to natural light stimulates the body’s serotonin, which plays a key role in boosting mood. Studies show that human brains have higher serotonin levels on bright and sunny days regardless of temperature.

‘…with increased contact with nature, the brain can be restored from fatigue and so reduce many unwanted symptoms such as impulsive behaviour, irritability, and aggressionBird (2004); Pretty et al. (2009) Every child Outdoors RSPB.

4. Facilitates improved sleeping patterns

Going outside in the daylight suppresses the production of melatonin – because sunlight regulates circadian rhythms to align with our body’s internal clock. The result is that spending time outside in natural light helps to keep us awake and alert during the day, which makes it easier to go to sleep at night and enjoy better sleep.

5. Provides big doses of the Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and a strong immune system, and low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with low mood and worry.

When there are as many constraints on the modern family as there are now, educators have so many responsibilities to nurture the children in their care – and the outdoors is a great place to exploit.   Children can play freely, keep healthy, develop a sense of self in their world and learn about the natural world around them. But most of all, the outdoors is great fun.  Building a den, rolling down a grassy bank, making daisy chains, climbing trees, playing football – so many opportunities for good mental health, joyful play, and a happy, memorable childhood. And you don’t need a lesson plan to enable it either (phew)!

We have worked in collaboration with The Den Kit Company and stock their three engaging outdoor den kits, exclusive to TTS. They are specifically designed to support a hands-on learning experience and wellbeing outdoors. The collections are perfect for encouraging collaboration and igniting imaginations as children create immersive learning environments outdoors.

Article written by Kay Miller

Managing Director - The Den Kit Company

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The Importance of Outdoor Play for our Children’s Mental Health

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