Children’s mental health problems avoided through outdoor play

children's mental health
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A new UK study has discovered that children’s mental health can be significantly boosted by spending more time playing adventurously outside, reducing their risk of developing anxiety and depression.

The study, performed by a University of Exeter research team, surveyed around 2,500 parents in the UK and Ireland, identifying that during the first lockdown, the mental health of children who played adventurously outside was enhanced compared to those who did not engage in outdoor play. The investigation comes at a crucial time in which children’s mental health issues are on the rise, and participation in outdoor activities is becoming increasingly uncommon.

The research, which is titled Child’s Play: Examining the Association Between Time Spent Playing and Child Mental Health’, is published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development and may help develop new initiatives to combat mental health problems among children.

Children’s mental health in the UK

Children’s mental health issues have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, with research from The Children’s Society suggesting that one in six children in the UK aged between five and 16 years will have a mental health problem. Additionally, the chances of young people developing a mental health issue have increased by 50% during the last three years.

Estimates from the Mental Health Foundation report that 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems do not receive effective interventions at an early age, exacerbating the conditions. Implementing more outdoor play during the crucial stage of child development may help to safeguard their mental wellbeing.

Effects of playing outside

For their study, which received funding from a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, the team surveyed around 2,500 parents of children aged between five and 11 who completed questionnaires about their child’s play, general mental health before the pandemic, and their mood during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The investigation was conducted with two groups of parents, 427 who lived in Northern Ireland and a nationally representative group of 1919 parents living in England, Wales, and Scotland.

The results demonstrated that children who spent more time playing outside were less likely to have internalising problems such as anxiety and depression and were more positive during the first lockdown.

Although the differences were relatively small, which is to be expected due to the vast range of factors contributing to their mental health, the results were consistent after factoring in variables such as sex, age, and parent’s employment status and mental health. The investigation also highlighted that the benefits of outdoor activities were more pronounced in children from lower income households than those in higher income households.

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “We’re more concerned than ever about children’s mental health, and our findings highlight that we might be able to help protect children’s mental health by ensuring they have plentiful opportunities for adventurous play. This is really positive because play is free, instinctive and rewarding for children, available to everyone, and doesn’t require special skills. We now urgently need to invest in and protect natural spaces, well-designed parks and adventure playgrounds, to support the mental health of our children.”

Dan Paskins, Director of UK Impact at Save the Children, said: “Every child needs and deserves opportunities to play.  This important research shows that this is even more vital to help children thrive after all they have missed out on during the COVID-19 restrictions.  More play means more happiness and less anxiety and depression.  That’s why Save the Children is supporting the Summer of Play campaign, which brings together organisations from around the country to pledge their support to enable children to have fun, spend time with friends and enjoy freedom.”

Jacqueline O’Loughlin, Chief Executive of PlayBoard NI, said: “This research emphasises the importance of adventurous play. Children and young people need freedom and opportunities to encounter challenges and risks in their everyday playful adventures. It is clear from the research findings that playing, taking risks and experiencing excitement outdoors make a positive contribution to children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. The rewards of allowing children to self-regulate and manage the challenge in their play are widespread and far-reaching. Adventurous play helps children build the resilience needed to cope with and manage stress in challenging circumstances.”

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