Even schools are striving to facilitate outdoor activities as a regular part of everyday learning. In addition to better physical health, children show improved concentration, better ability to focus and learn, increased productivity, better behaviour, and the fostering of more positive relationships when they are more active and spend more time outside during the day.
Why are the outdoors so good for children’s mental health? Most people will agree that a walk in the fresh air, away from the confines of the home or office, is a great way of clearing the mind and easing tension. The same applies to children.
Academic pressures, busy urban areas and flashing screens can lead to anxiety in children. It is important to find balance between exposure to these environments, and ensuring that children get more and plenty of time outside.
Here are five ways playing outside improves children’s mental and emotional development.
Sunshine & Happiness
Being outside in sunlight allows our bodies to naturally produce Vitamin D, which releases the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps to regulate emotion and mood and is linked with happiness and relief from depression. Lack of sufficient time outdoors puts children at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, because the sun is the best source for Vitamin D production and it is not found in many foods. In fact, the majority of people receive 80-90 percent of their Vitamin D requirements through sunshine alone.
Time spent playing outdoors is also thought to help relieve stress and anxiety by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol in the brain. Just five minutes of exercise in a natural outdoor environment can rapidly improve self-esteem and mental health and wellbeing in young people.
Readiness To Learn
Children became more restless and inattentive with prolonged sitting. Intermittent outdoor activity sessions reduce disruption and increasing children’s ability to pay attention by breaking up the monotony of seated work. When children are happy, more attuned and more open to learning, teachers have better class management and can spend more time teaching instead of disciplining.
Playing outdoors in unstructured settings allows children to learn how to work together. They need to learn to make friends, how to share and cooperate, and how to treat people. If they only interact in very structured settings, such as school or sports teams, they will not have the opportunity to learn more about social interaction.
Leadership & Problem-Solving
Leadership skills help children plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask. They are crucial for success. Creativity and using the imagination to problem-solve is important too. These are skills that must be learned and practiced. And to do this, children need unstructured time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed to make up their own games and find ways to entertain themselves. Playing outside gives children opportunities to practice these important life skills.
Children need to learn how to take risks. The unpredictability of playing outdoors and exploring nature will allow children will teach children to be prepared for the unknown. If children never take risks, they will not know what they are capable of doing. They will build confidence to face life’s inevitable risks. The lessons we learn from failure are just as important as those we learn from success.