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How can outdoor play improve my child’s mental health?

To children, play is just fun. However, while they may not realise it, playtime is as important to their development as food and maths.

Play helps children to be creative, learn problem-solving skills and develop a sense of curiosity. Good, hardy play – like running and shouting – is not only fun but helps children to be physically and mentally healthy.

Outdoor play in its many varying forms helps children to learn about the world around them and in doing that, learn about themselves.

For example, climbing a tree builds confidence and self-esteem, while falling and scraping a knee promotes resilience. Building a den outside is often a collaborative effort that requires social skills and communication.

Ways to encourage outdoor play:

  1. Using versatile outdoor play equipment like the Naylor activity tunnel – encourages children to engage in storytelling and act out different adventures. Free and imaginative play is the superfood of the balanced play diet for a reason – it allows children to make sense of the world around them
  2. Make sure they know it’s ok to get wet, dirty or messy. Although this may create more washing, messy play develops creativity and allows sensory and tactile exploration
  3. Treasure or scavenger hunts in the garden encourage your child’s natural sense of curiosity 
  4. Outdoor games like Skimbe and Molkky promote active play which is great for children’s health and wellbeing. They also encourage healthy competition which is ideal for developing your child’s understanding of winning and losing
  5. Encourage your child to incorporate features of nature into their play equipment – for example, using tree stumps, rocks and branches
  6. Help your child build a den in the garden, using pegs and old sheets

Benefits of playing outside

The value of outdoor learning and connecting to nature is huge. Whether it’s structured learning, or free play, getting outside makes for healthier and happier minds. Exposure to nature can have a soothing effect on children and can reduce hyperactivity, especially in those with ADHD.


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


Time spent playing outside can also help to improve your child’s ability to focus in the classroom and foster more positive relationships among their peer group.

The science behind outdoor play

Natural sunlight allows our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which releases the chemical serotonin in the brain which helps to regulate emotion and mood. Because Vitamin D isn’t in many of our foods, a lack of time spent outdoors puts children at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. 

Research with older children shows that those with higher levels of serotonin experience more positive emotions with their family members in comparison those with lower serotonin who have a greater likelihood of responding to negative emotions with self-destructive behaviour.

Children are regularly exposed to stressful environments such as busy urban areas, screens and pressure in the classroom. Being allowed to play outdoors offers an escape and can help to bring stress and anxiety levels down by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol in the brain. 


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 and provide them with valuable life skills.