Children today spend more time indoors than any other generation, reports the National Recreation and Park Association, enjoying only four to seven minutes of outdoor unstructured play. This fact is significantly impairing their health, with the CDC reporting that over one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Outdoor adventures also have many important benefits for children’s mental health, helping them build self-confidence and resilience. Read on to discover what science has to say about the importance of adventurous outdoor play.
Risk and Resilience
A 2015 University of British Columbia study showed that risky outdoor play – such as climbing, rough and tumble play, exploring the surroundings independently, negotiating different height levels found in trees and plants and the like, prompts better physical and social health. Lead researcher, Mariana Brussoni, stated, “We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased playtime, social interactions, creativity and resilience.” Natural areas give children a chance to learn about risk and their own physical limits. Another (2014) study published in Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning showed that children can develop coping strategies that boost personal resilience by enjoying adventures in the Great Outdoors. Facing adversities, developing a strategy to tackle them, and knowing when to quit all strengthen one’s ability to overcome obstacles.
Climbing Trees and Mental Resilience
Children who get anxious in the face of exams and other stressful situations can benefit from outdoor adventures and (supervised) risky activities like tree climbing. Studies have shown that just 10 to 20 minutes of time outdoors significantly lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A 2015 University of North Florida study, meanwhile, showed that climbing trees can significantly improve cognitive skills. The researchers explained that “by doing activities that make us think, we can exercise our brains as well as our bodies.” Parents should teach children safe tree climbing techniques to keep scratches and scrapes at bay. Top tips include choosing a hardwood tree (think oaks, maples, buckeyes, pines, and sycamores), trees with branches of at least six inches in diameter, and trees in top condition. Children should dress in long sleeve shirts and pants to protect knees and elbows. Experts recommend that trees should be climbed barefoot for better grip but you can also purchase a flexible shoe for your child.
Not All Natural Spaces Are Created Equal
To provide children with a particularly strong boost for their physical and mental resilience, choose a relatively wild spot if you can. A 2020 University of Washington study showed that experiencing wildness is particularly beneficial to human beings, since “wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.” If you have no plans for the weekend, taking your children to a natural reserve or going on a camping adventure is an ideal way to expose them to authentic ‘wild’ living.
Time outdoors is key to human mental health. It also fosters resilience in children, especially when the natural spot is a little wild and challenging. Parents can ensure children benefit from green spaces while also staying safe by providing them with the right outfits and safety gear and by teaching them key techniques – including tree-climbing safety strategies.