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

There is much evidence that spending time outside for all of us is great for our mental health and yet recent research found that:

  • 25% of children spend less than 30 minutes playing outdoors a week.
  • 80% of parents admitted not encouraging their children to play outside because of safety concerns.
  • 60% of parents acknowledged there were now more enticing things for children to do indoors e.g. playing computer games or watching T.V.
  • The average child spends just 4 hours a week playing outside, this is half the amount time than that of the previous generation.
  • The majority of parents admitted their children did not play outdoors as much as they did during their own childhood.
  • 43% of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves


There are barriers to enabling children to access the outdoors and, as a society, we need to do something about it. As individuals we can all have a positive impact on the lives of the children in our care.

"Yes, there are risks outside our homes. But there are also risks in raising children under virtual protective house arrest: threats to their independent judgment and value of place, to their ability to feel awe and wonder, to their sense of stewardship for the Earth — and, most immediately, threats to their psychological and physical health. The rapid increase in childhood obesity leads many health-care leaders to worry that the current generation of children may be the first since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents. Getting kids outdoors more, riding bikes, running, swimming — and, especially, experiencing nature directly — could serve as an antidote to much of what ails the young."
- Richard Louv, Leave No Child Inside

In my years as a teacher, it was evident to me that the majority of children in my care would, given the choice, 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.
As children get older you only have to hear the audible roar as they charge into the playground at break time to understand how much children need to be outside.

A natural outdoor environment provides a continuously evolving and changing space to explore. Seasons come and go, the weather varies, shadows, seed heads, puddles, ice can appear and disappear rapidly.

Children love this unstructured environment where, un-governed by adults, they can try things out, take risks, make mistakes and make their own decisions.

There is considerable research now published, which strongly suggests that children’s mental health and wellbeing is 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." - Gretel Van Wieren, Michigan State University


A regular sustained dose of nature:

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 time was spent in nature, with the greatest impact coming from spending 20 to 30 minutes outside. Her research suggests that exposure to green space appears to increase parasympathetic nervous activity. This is the system that “undoes” the cause of stress caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Not only does this exposure result is in a sense of calmness, but 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, 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 feeling anxious is rapid and effective.

3. Improves Mood and Diminishes Worry
Spending time in nature helps minds rest by allowing presence in 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 levels of serotonin 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 aggression" - Bird (2004); Pretty et al (2009) Every child Outdoors RSPB

4. Facilitates Better Sleep
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 you awake and alert during the day, which makes it easier to go to sleep at night and to get 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.

Outside, 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 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.