Boost The Mental Health Of Children Through Adventurous Play

First Five Years

Childhood is a time for play. This is when they learn about the world around them, how to cope with their emotions, and how they can interact with the rest of the world. It’s such an important time in their lives because this is when they can achieve milestones that teach them coping skills.

Research found that children who spend more time on adventurous play exhibit lower symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, they were the ones who were happier over the first Covid-19 lockdown. This finding had piqued the interest of the researchers.

A study was made and it was led by the University of Exeter. They asked parents how often their children engaged “thrilling and exciting” play. This was a play that involved evoking mild and healthy feelings of fear and uncertainty from children.

The study was made in perfect timing because the generation today has had fewer experiences when it comes to adventurous play out that’s done without adults. Not too many children engage in climbing trees, riding bikes, jumping from high surfaces, or just playing somewhere without adult supervision. Hence, the team wanted to test out some theories regarding adventurous play and how it offers learning opportunities for them so that they can learn resilience, which, in turn, helps with their mental health.

The research was made with the help of the funding from a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. The team surveyed almost 2,500 parents of children aged 5-11 years old. They were asked to answer questions regarding their child’s play, general mental health (pre-Covid), and their mood during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The research was done by grouping the parents into two: the first 427 of them living in Northern Ireland and the second was 1,919 of them representing the national standards and who lived in Great Britain. The team discovered that children who spend more time playing outside had less “internalizing problems.” This means that they didn’t go through anxiety and depression. It was that group that exhibited more positive attitudes during the first worldwide lockdown.

The effects of the lockdown were measured that the findings were relatively small. This was expected considering the given the range of factors that had affected their mental health. Still, the results were impressive because these were consistent even when the team had factored in a wide range of demographic variables such as sex, age, parent employment status, parent mental health, and other items. The study made with the second group also saw that the effect was exacerbated for children that came from lower income families than those who grew up in households that earned more.

“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,” said Helen Dodd. She is a professor of child psychology at the of the University of Exeter. She also led the study. Dodd added, “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.”

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

“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 organizations from around the country to pledge their support to enable children to have fun, spend time with friends and enjoy freedom.”

“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,” Jacqueline O’Loughlin, Chief Executive of PlayBoard NI, said. She talked about the findings and added, “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.”

For parents who want to know more about adventurous play that come for free, the following are some examples:

  • Going for a walk in the dark with just a flashlight
  • Exploring the forest by themselves or with a friend
  • Camping out for one night
  • Swimming or paddling in a lake or river
  • Jumping from a swing
  • Using a skateboard, a pair of roller skates, or a bicycle to try out stunts or acquire skills
  • Creating and experiencing an obstacle course, whether indoors or outdoors

This research made had already been published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development.