The Importance of Outdoor Play for our Children’s Mental Health and our Own.
I had a light bulb moment once when sitting on a Welsh beach enjoying the seascape tranquillity- and yes – my five small children were with me. I was actually enjoying an extended moment of peace and relaxation… 'How can that be?' I hear you cry. I realised it was because the children were all totally and happily absorbed in their own play- a couple of buckets, spades, sand, a handful of ‘discovered’ natural beach treasures, sea - air and an oceanful of water was it. Mostly free resources, or at least inexpensive. All just there. The children played for hours, stopping only for pilchard and celery sandwiches (I know… but they didn’t know then that they are rather eccentric- when you’re outdoors and hungry ANYTHING tastes good- and they had become a bit of a family tradition). As a parent, the crowning glory was that when they eventually flopped into bed it was the ‘asleep as their heads hit the pillow ‘scenario!
We parents put ourselves under so much pressure to keep our children actively-engaged-at-all-times. My children, now adults, have golden memories of those simple beach day pleasures which they are emulating with my grandchildren. I firmly believe that young children are programmed to instinctively do what nurtures them, that they are happiest and easiest to manage when they are doing ’what they need to do’, and that the best thing we can do is to facilitate that instinct.
Children thrive in a natural outdoor environment which provides a continuously evolving and changing space to explore. Seasons come and go, the weather varies, shadows, seed heads, puddles, sandcastles, 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.
And it’s official. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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, the outdoors is a wonderful, plentiful and accessible resource. Children can play freely, keep healthy, develop a sense of self in their world, practice life skills and learn about the natural world around them, and we can relax, in the full knowledge that it’s really good for them- actually essential.
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. So, now the sun is shining, pack up those pilchard and celery sandwiches and take a detour on the way home from school….