Outdoor play vital for mental health

12th December 2019 | In the news | Insights

There is a weight of evidence which shows that our mental health is improved by spending time outdoors. GPs are encouraged to issue prescriptions for outdoor activities including walking, birdwatching and gardening to treat conditions such as anxiety and depression alongside conventional medication.

But it seems that we're still not spending enough time outdoors and that children are worst affected, tending to spend more time connected to devices and less time connecting to nature. A report by the National Trust found that children are playing outside for an average of just over four hours a week. This is less than half of the 8.2 hours a week their parents would have spent outside.

In my role training teachers and other educational professionals to help children to become more emotionally resilient, I teach the importance  of spending time in nature for children. One of the courses we run focuses on encouraging children to develop a connection with nature as a way of helping them to manage stress and process difficult emotions. Being exposed to nature helps them to relax, have fun and develop a healthy sense of self.


"Put down those electronic devices and get outdoors into nature, "


However it can be hard to get children to choose this healthy, feelgood option over screen time. While nature and screen time are both compelling, they engage different parts of the brain and create different responses in the brain. In the 1980s, psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan put forward Attention Restoration Theory which proposes that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate. Part of this theory describes the idea of fascination, where one's attention is held  without any effort being expended. According to the academics, there are two kinds of fascination. Hard fascination is when attention is held by a highly-stimulating activity  which can often involve technology such as watching television or surfing the internet. It is thought these activities stimulate the release of dopamine and stress hormones such as cortisol making them compelling, even addictive, but not particularly relaxing. These sort of activities can also impact on sleep because the blue light emitted by screens decreases levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. These activities do not recharge our mental batteries in the same way that being in nature does.

Soft fascination involves having one's attention held by a less  stimulating activity - but something that provides opportunities for reflection and introspection. The natural world is an endless source of soft fascination, especially aspects that involve a gentle, repetitive movement such as moving water or rustling leaves in the wind. This more gentle stimulation allows the mind to rest in quiet reflection and contemplation, helping to rejuvenate our focus and concentration. Soft fascination does not stimulate the release of stress hormones and is genuinely relaxing and restorative.

Although walking on a beach, sitting by a stream, watching clouds pass over and planting some flowers will give us what we need, it isn't always what we want, particularly if we're feeling stressed and  overwhelmed. This is particularly true for children, who may struggle with delaying gratification and impulse control. The 'numbing' quality of phone scrolling or similar technology-based sedentary activities can be the more tempting alternative.


How can we overcome the pull of the sedentary and gently nudge children towards what will genuinely help their minds and bodies to feel less stressed and more open to life and learning?

A good starting point is to let children know that it's OK to get wet and muddy so that they can relax and enjoy playing, without worrying  about getting told off. Allow children to use natural resources in their play. Examples might include tree stumps for jumping off, boulders to climb and sit on, logs to practise balancing or climbing and plants, sand, gravel and wood for jumping over, walking through, and throwing. Nature encourages imaginative play and physical exploration and nature play is often freely chosen, spontaneous, and unstructured.

Teenagers in garden



Our role as adults is to understand why children may want to spend their time connected to devices without judging them or criticising them. If we make it easier for them to understand the fun, positivity and relaxation that the outdoors offers them, they will more likely choose to put down their phone and play outside.

Perhaps most importantly, as adults, we need to better understand this aspect of neuroscience so that we can make better choices ourselves and set children a good example by our own behaviour.

Written by Viv Trask-Hall, Head of Innovation in Education at Thrive.

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