The value of outdoor play for children’s mental health and wellbeing

May 15, 2019 Published by

Why play is important

Play improves the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and young people. Through play, children learn about the world and themselves.

They also learn skills they need for study, work and relationships such as:

  • Confidence
  • Self-esteem
  • Resilience
  • Interaction
  • Social skills
  • Independence
  • Curiosity
  • Coping with challenging situations.




To children, play is just fun. However, play-time is as important to their development as food and good care. Play helps children to be creative, learn problem-solving skills, and self-control. Good, hardy play – like running and shouting – is not only fun but helps children to be physically and mentally healthy.

The value of outdoor play, outdoor learning, and connecting to nature is huge. Whether it’s structured learning, or free play, getting outside makes for healthier and happier minds.

“Children think better on their feet than on their seat.” Mark Benden, PhD, CPE.

According to the Open University’s OPENspace Research Centre, there is extensive evidence suggesting that time spent in nature, increases life expectancy, improves wellbeing, reduces symptoms of depression, and increases a child’s ability to function in school.


How it benefits children (and teachers) at school

  • Better ability to focus and learn
  • Increased productivity
  • Better behaviour
  • More positive relationships between adults and children, and amongst peer groups
  • Better class management
  • More time teaching (and learning) instead of disciplining



The outdoors is where children can be themselves, with fewer restrictions, giving them a sense of escapism in an open space that is hard to beat. Having this exposure to nature can have a soothing effect on children, and can reduce hyperactivity, especially in those suffering from ADHD (Bird, 2007).

A study by the American Medical Association concluded that ‘Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the outdoors’ (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005).

“We now have conclusive evidence that sports and physical activity are clearly linked to mental wellbeing.” Lisa O’Keefe, Sport England.


The science behind outdoor play



Being outside in natural sunlight is one of the best solutions to help with different mental health solutions. Natural sunlight allows our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which releases the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.

This helps to regulate emotion and mood which has been suggested links with happiness and relief from depression. Having a lack of time outdoors puts children at risk of Vitamin D deficiency because Vitamin D isn’t in many of our foods.

A study in 2008 revealed that older children with higher levels of serotonin experience more positive emotions with their family members, and older children with lower levels of serotonin have a greater likelihood of responding to negative emotions with self-destructive behaviour. 

Sitting or playing outdoors is thought to help relieve stress and anxiety by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol in the brain. Children are frequently exposed to stressful environments such as busy, noisy urban areas, television/tablet screens and pressure in the classroom, which can also lead to anxiety and depression.

Having an escape from all those stressful environments by being allowed to play outdoors offers an escape and helps to bring stress levels down.

By giving children time out, encouraging them to get back to basics and have some fun playing outdoors, we can make a huge difference to their overall mental health and wellbeing.




Burdette, H. L. and Whitaker, R. C (2005). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation and Affect, American Medical Association.

Bird (2007) Natural Thinking: investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health. Sandy, Bedfordshire: RSPB.

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This post was written by Georgia-Mae Evans

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