Is getting your children outside *actually* important?

I spent 15 years teaching in primary schools in London and almost all of that time was spent indoors. It never seemed natural to me that we keep young children cooped up inside for most of their waking hours.

When I had my own children, I noticed that outside things were always so much easier. Outdoors there are fewer rules! Throwing things, being loud, moving fast – it’s all acceptable outside! Plus they’re not making a mess of the house, or negotiating whose turn it is, or who something belongs to – there are no shortage of sticks and stones in the forest so those sorts of issues fall by the wayside. To be honest, I was still a bit of a ‘fair weather’ Mum though. On a nice day I’d do my best to get the kids outdoors but if it was cold or raining it was usually off the cards.

Meanwhile, at work, I was shocked to find out that a lot of the children I taught had never been in a forest despite living only a few miles from one. Many of them didn’t know their local parks either. I started to adjust the curriculum to include topics on forests, the local area and the environment, and more opportunities for children to get out and about. I looked for research on the impact of outdoor
time and found hundreds of papers on the wide range of benefits of being outside. I soon found evidence that outdoor time helped with physical development, sleep, health and immunity, memory, attention, school performance, self esteem, social skills, stress and even eyesight.

Natural outdoor spaces seem to be the most beneficial, studies show that children’s physical activity, balance and agility improve more in natural play spaces than they do in tarmacked playgrounds. Studies also show that people who spend more time engaging with the natural environment during childhood, grow up to be more environmentally conscious adults. This an important factor in safeguarding the care of our planet in future. To be motivated to protect our planet, our children need to care about it, and often the best way of caring about nature is to know it well and develop an affinity with natural spaces.

There are a wide range of pathways through which the benefits of nature occur. Some papers describe how spending more time in natural environments can influence gut microbiota which in turn might affect brain functioning. Other papers explain that nature is a less taxing environment for our brains to process, allowing functions like attention and memory to rest and replenish, which improves subsequent cognitive performance. Some experiments have shown amazing results, such as children with ADHD performing better on tests of attention following a walk in the park – the short term effects of the nature walk were as strong as some types of ADHD medication! The benefits aren’t just for children either – decades of research shows that being in the forest can reduce adults heart rate, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones.

I had always felt a gut instinct that getting children outside was ‘a good thing’ but I had no idea that there was so much scientific research backing why this was the case. I was shocked that this research hadn’t managed to reach and influence parents and teachers. I realised that a lot of the research was difficult to find and difficult to understand. Parents and teachers are busy people and unlikely to have time to wade through complex research reports. Furthermore, not all of the research is good quality and it can be difficult to distinguish which studies definitely ‘prove’ something and which are offering robust and reliable results.

I decided to start a PhD researching the impact of increasing outdoor time in schools. My aim was to make my research easily accessible to all, and to share what I found out along the way with parents and teachers, raising awareness of how to interpret research and be critical consumers of research findings. I do this via my Instagram account @phd_and_three. In my research study, children wear heart rate monitors, head mounted cameras and small microphones so that I can analyse their stress levels, learning, attention and behaviour across indoor and outdoor settings.

Just a few months into the PhD, the Covid pandemic hit. I had a 1 year old son at the time and found myself unable to take him to any of the toddler groups and activities which had been so enjoyable and beneficial for my older sons. I was concerned about how his development might be affected by spending such a formative time of his life in lockdown.

One impact of the pandemic however was that I was no longer a ‘fair weather Mum’ – no matter what the conditions were, during lockdown me and my sons went out to the park or the forest every day. Sometimes we would be escaping a heatwave in the cool shade of the trees, sometimes we were trudging through the rain or even snow. We all talked more outside. The older boys would open up more and start discussions while we were walking, something they wouldn’t have done at home. They also rediscovered the joys of rope swings, puddle splashing and hide and seek – simple pleasures I thought they had grown out of. And I needn’t have worried about my youngest son; the daily time with me and his brothers, away from the distractions of the home, meant he got so much quality interaction and 1:1 discussion. His speech and vocabulary developed rapidly as did his walking stamina. He was able to walk much further and faster than either of his brothers had at his age, and his balance was developing too, from walking over uneven ground in all sorts of weathers. I was seeing for myself the benefits I had spent so long reading about! His concentration and imagination outdoors were also fantastic, he would happily spend ages counting stones, balancing on logs and comparing leaves, as well as engaging in imaginative play. I realised that many of the toys I’d bought my older children, and the groups and activities I had paid to take them to were unnecessary, my youngest was finding everything he needed in the forest!

Those trips outdoors also saved my own sanity – juggling work, PhD studies, homeschooling 2 children and having a toddler at home all day too often felt like an impossible challenge, but daily time in nature helped me to reset and refocus each day and to manage some of the stress involved in the juggle. It’s one thing I actually miss about those times. Sometimes getting out of the door when you’re feeling demotivated or stressed, or your children are being particularly challenging is really difficult – children often put up a fight about going out and it can feel exhausting before you’ve even left the house. But these are the times we often most need to push through and prioritise getting outside. If you, or your children are having a tough day, I strongly recommended trying time in nature as a ‘reset button’ – it impacts us on so many levels, from our physical stress to our attention and health. And if you want to find out more about how nature does this, or about the research I am doing in schools and what we’re finding out about outdoor learning, please do come and join me over @phd_and_three!