Learning and Development

Children’s wellbeing – Using nature to improve mental health

  • Children’s wellbeing – Using nature to improve mental health

We can boost children’s wellbeing by ensuring they spend enough time outdoors, says Sarah Watkins…

Many of the children in our settings are missing a vital connection. Studies carried out pre-pandemic showed that, on average, each young person plays outdoors for just four hours a week. That’s half the time their parents spent outside as children.

Government research in 2016 found that 10% of children had not been to a natural environment such as a park for over a year. While ‘green time’ decreases, ‘screen time’ is increasing.

Three and four-year-olds are spending an average of 14 hours on TV per week. 4% of five to seven-year-olds have their own social media profile.

Lockdowns during the Covid 19 pandemic meant many children’s lives were spent indoors. Does it matter? The overwhelming answer is yes! Children need regular time outdoors in order to feel good and function well.

As time spent in nature has fallen, issues such as myopia, sensory difficulties, obesity, anxiety and even rickets have gone up. Obesity is responsible for 30,000 deaths a year in the UK, and the UK has the highest rates in Europe. A third of primary-aged children are classified as overweight.

Children’s wellbeing and mental health

Most adults find that time outside in nature restores their equilibrium. This is true for children too. Being outdoors is linked to physical and mental health benefits. Research shows that feeling connected to nature leads to reduced stress levels, improved concentration and behaviour and better sleep rhythms.

On New Year’s Eve 2019 I was in Dublin, surrounded by friendly revellers. I spotted a poster on the wall promoting a band called Ceangal. “What does that mean?”, I asked a group of people nearby.

“Connection!” one of them shouted, giving me a hug. “You know, linking together!” A few months later, COVID-19 led to a worldwide sense of disconnection.

When schools opened more widely in June 2020, I made sure that the children returning to my class spent as much time as possible outdoors. They needed to process what they’d been through. They benefited from the restorative power of nature.

By supporting children to be outdoors we can give them the vital ‘ceangal’ (roughly pronounced ‘key-angle’) they need for good lifelong mental health.

Indeed, according to a 2019 Danish study, children who grow up with greener surroundings have up to 55% less risk of developing various mental health issues later in life.

A child’s brain expects and needs plenty of outdoor play for normal development. Moreover, when children feel connected to the natural environment, they’re more likely to care for it in the future. Extended time in nature leads to sustainable attitudes.

Positive relationships with physical activity and outdoor education

A vital part of building a healthy sense of connection with the outdoors is letting children know, through our words, actions and body language, that it feels good to be out in all weathers.

Brits are famously obsessed with meteorological conditions. I’m sure we’ve all worked with colleagues who are forever negative about the weather. Try to check yourself if you find you’re talking negatively about the elements, and look on the bright side.

For example, rain is nourishing and vital for nature. Channel a little Norwegian friluftsliv. (The Norwegians are amongst the happiest people on earth, and getting outside in cold weather is essential to their wellbeing.)

There’s a saying that bad weather looks worse through a window. I felt my heart sink looking out of my classroom window at heavy rain recently, but I reflected later that I’d been privileged to be part of some truly joyful outdoor adventures with a group of four-year-olds. One of them told me it was “the most brilliant day of my ‘wole’ life!”.

I was quickly distracted from my never-ending mental checklist. I gained invaluable insights into how these children collaborate, tackle adversity and interact. Sometimes I learn more about children in a few hours of observations outside than I do in a few weeks in the classroom.

In practical terms, clothing that’s waterproof rather than just water resistant is essential (for adults and children). It makes being outdoors in the rain a completely different experience.

Sometimes parents need persuading of the benefits of their children being out in all weathers. However, on the whole, they also want the best for their children. They’ll be receptive to the message that we’re building healthy brains and bodies.

Messy play and children’s wellbeing

For their own wellbeing, children need to get dirty. From my forest school sessions, I can see that children are increasingly ‘dirt-averse’.

However, regular time in natural spaces, combined with reassurance from nurturing adults, builds a tolerance for outdoor messy play and even a love for it.

A young child will use touch to make sense of the world around them. When we encourage them to notice how mud, long grass or pebbles feel, a myriad of new neural connections are created.

Children are skilled at ‘being in the moment’. If we tune into this, we support mindful practice that boosts mental health.

I remember once watching a three-year-old lying on the ground, gazing in awe at a line of ants, carrying the body of a wasp. Suddenly, a lunchtime supervisor brusquely told him to “go and play!” – a connection sadly interrupted.

Positive outcomes – embrace your space

It’s worth remembering that, for young children, a natural environment doesn’t need to be a large physical space.

Looking at them through a child’s eyes, bushes become a forest and pots of herbs become an edible garden. On the subject of gardening, I’ve found that almost all young children are obsessed with compost, once they understand the process.

Children discover the connection between fruit scraps and new life, between decay and microorganisms.

Taking out the banana skins and used tea bags from the staff room gives children a sense that they’re an active part of the outdoor environment and are powerful enough to effect change. (Compost also has that marvellous ‘icky’ factor!)

Life as an early years practitioner can be hectic, exhausting and stressful. But that day when you enabled children to play outside all day long helped to build healthy habits for life.

These are the days they’ll remember and these are the connections they need.

6 ways to stay connected to nature

  • Look after number one
    Make sure you get sufficient time outdoors for your own physical health, emotional health and wellbeing
  • Stay firm
    Resist pressure from parents or those in authority who insist that children should be indoors more.
  • Avoid weather negativity, especially in front of the children!
    Make sure you have good warm and waterproof clothing, then speak positively about the weather.
  • Encourage messy play
    It’s great for engaging the senses and has been shown to stimulate serotonin.
  • Teach sustainability
    Using books like Someone Swallowed Stanley helps children see that we need to care for our natural world so that it can care for us.
  • Do what you can do
    If you have staffing issues, this will restrict you. Count any time outside as a win.

Sarah Watkins is a reception teacher at Ledbury Primary School.