As our colleagues at Natural England join together with leaders in the health sector to discuss mental health,dementia and the natural environment, we bring you this guest post looking at mental health in children, and how outdoor play, and learning, can help. Mental health is often perceived as an issue for adults however over half of mental health problems in adult life, excluding dementia, start by the age of 14, and three quarters by age 18. Today in the UK, 1 in 10 of school aged children suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every school class. The Natural Connections Demonstration project recently reported that 90% of children said they felt happier and healthier when learning outside, and in addition, 72% of teachers also reported a positive impact on their health.
Our guest blogger Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing outdoor learning environments for the past 10 years and believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which should be integrated into the school curriculum at every opportunity.
There once was a time when children lived outside until they were called in for tea! Not so much these days. Parents’ fear for their children’s safety, whether due to increased traffic on the roads or wider reporting of crimes against children. All of this causes parents to be more reluctant to allow children outdoors unless they are fully supervised. Controversial screens and computer games continue to take the blame for our children becoming sedentary and uninterested in venturing outside. The effects of spending too much time in front of screens are beginning to emerge.
A recent UK study, shows a significant increase in mental health problems in children. Pressure to conform and the lack of a regular connection that children have with the outdoors are two major contributing factors. By encouraging our children to get back to basics and have some fun playing outdoors, we can make a huge difference to their overall mental health and wellbeing.
Studies worldwide demonstrate a correlation between participation in outdoor activities and significant improvements in mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing in children. There are few rules and restrictions outdoors and the freedom to play in the fresh air offers so many benefits through “running free”. Thankfully, in more recent years there has been a real shift in understanding of the importance of outdoor play, and schools are striving to facilitate outdoor activities as a regular part of everyday learning.
What is it about the outdoors that is so good for our children’s mental health? Most people will agree that a walk in the fresh air, away from the confines of “four walls”, is a sure way of clearing the head and gaining time to reflect and give our brains a breather. The same rings true for children. It’s a good starting point, and there is more:
Vitamin D from the sun
A lack of Vitamin D has been linked to the development or worsening of mental health conditions, such as depression, low mood and schizophrenia and studies have suggested that Vitamin D3 enhances mood.
It’s all about serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps regulate mood and emotions, and is closely tied with happiness. Children need healthy levels of serotonin for their mental health and development.
A study in 2008 revealed that adolescents with higher levels of serotonin experience more positive emotions with their family members, and adolescents with lower levels of serotonin have a greater likelihood of responding to negative emotions with self-destructive behaviour.
Vitamin D acts as a hormone which helps release serotonin in the brain, and the best natural source of Vitamin D, is the sunlight. It can be a difficult vitamin to get hold of just through diet as so few foods carry it, and most of us soak up 80 to 90 percent of our Vitamin D requirements through the sunshine alone.
By encouraging our children to play outdoors, even if only for 15 minutes every day, they are naturally exposed to the finest source of Vitamin D that there is. Of course, there are risks associated with too much sun exposure, but provided they are wearing sunscreen (if necessary) and have a sensible amount of exposure, then there should be no need for concern.
Switching on to switching off
Spending time playing outdoors in a natural environment is thought to help relieve stress by reducing levels of cortisol, a “stress hormone”, in the brain. Children are frequently exposed to stressful environments such as increasingly busy, noisy urban areas, flashing screens and pressure in the classroom, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Being allowed to play outdoors, particularly in a natural environment, offers some escape from this and helps to bring stress levels down.
It becomes something to look forward to. Most children love to play outside. This alone is reason enough to protect their right to play at every level. A recent study shows that just five minutes of “green exercise” can rapidly improve mental wellbeing and self-esteem, particularly in young people.
Engaging with nature and experiencing the outdoors first hand, boosts cognitive development and promotes healthier, happier minds.
Forest School has conducted extensive research into the subject and the findings are clear. Being outdoors contributes to higher levels of well-being, characterised by self-confidence that comes from children having the freedom, time and space to learn, grow and demonstrate independence. It’s time to switch off and go outside.