Adventurous play outdoors leads to stronger mental health for kids

EXETER, United Kingdom — Excitement and exploration help kids avoid anxiety, according to researchers from the University of Exeter. Their study finds children who spend more time playing adventurously show fewer signs of anxiety and depression. Moreover, adventurous kids also tended to be happier during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Researchers surveyed nearly 2,500 parents of children between five and 11 years-old for this project. Some parents (427) were living in Northern Ireland, while the majority (1,919) hailed from the United Kingdom (England, Wales, and Scotland).

Each parent was asked how often their children engaged in play considered “thrilling and exciting.” Examples include climbing trees, riding bikes, or exploring a wooded area. Study authors point out that such activities are often unpredictable and may even lead to a scary or uncertain moment or two.

Additional questions asked about kids’ overall well-being, as well as how they fared mentally during the first pandemic lockdowns in 2020.

“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,” says study leader Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology, in a university release.

“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.”

Learning to avoid internalizing problems

Kids are more plugged in nowadays than ever before, which means most children don’t have as many opportunities for adventurous play outside as previous generations. An important aspect of adventurous play in many cases is that it takes place away from adult supervision. Researchers wanted to test their theory that adventurous play helps kids build up their resilience, making them less vulnerable to mental health issues.

Sure enough, kids who spent more time playing outside dealt with less “internalizing problems,” hallmarked by anxiety and depression. Those same children were generally more positive during the first lockdown as well.

“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,” says Dan Paskins, Director of UK Impact at Save the Children.

Mental health boost for low-income families?

Researchers were quick to add that adventurous play is not the sole determining factor when it comes to childhood mental health. Numerous elements come into play. However, the study’s observed results were quite consistent even after considering a variety of variables including the child’s gender, age, and parents’ careers.

The beneficial effect of adventurous play also seemed to be more prominent among children born to lower income families.

“This research emphasizes the importance of adventurous play. Children and young people need freedom and opportunities to encounter challenge and risk in their everyday playful adventures. It is clear from the research findings that playing, taking risks and experiencing excitement outdoors makes a positive contribution to children’s mental health and emotional well-being,” concludes Jacqueline O’Loughlin, Chief Executive of PlayBoard NI.

“The rewards of allowing children to self-regulate and manage challenge in their play are widespread and far-reaching. Adventurous play helps children to build the resilience needed to cope with, and manage stress in challenging circumstances.”

The study is published in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

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