It’s no secret by now that outdoor education and activity is of vital importance to the physical health of children. Having regular healthy doses of active time in the great outdoors has been proven time and time again to be key in the fight against childhood obesity and related health issues in the UK.
Childhood Mental Health & The Outdoors
But what about the rise in childhood mental health issues? 110,000 children in London alone are experiencing significant mental health issues according to new PHE report. The study shows a rise in anxiety, depression and behavioral problems among children in England.
So how can outdoor education, activity and interaction help support the efforts of schools in reducing the mental wellbeing issues school children are experiencing?
1. Increase In Self-Reliance
Researcher Jim Zuberbuhler stated in his article “Outdoors the Rules Are Different,” that “A willingness to challenge oneself physically and emotionally are integral components of outdoor programs, because pushing oneself this way can enhance self-reliance, confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills.”
Learning outdoors, pushing oneself in challenging circumstances, surrounded by encouragement and supportive teams and peers is an astonishingly good way of building children up. Self reliance and dependance increases confidence in them that strengthens their perception of themselves and they carry this through to their school and home lives.
2. Serotonin and Dopamine - Stress Busting Formula
Serotonin is a hormone released in the brain during rewarding physical activity. It produces feelings of well-being and safety and is triggered by things such as music and the sounds of nature and being encouraged and receiving affirmation.
Dopamine is the pleasure chemical triggered by repetitive activities. These activities can take place on activity trips or outdoor lessons and involve activities like problem solving, physical challenges and environmental studies such as monitoring plant growth or building a herb garden.
The combination of dopamine and serotonin is a hormonal stress buster. As children in the UK are becoming more exposed to stressful situations and challenges it is important to open up opportunities for them to naturally combat the negative effects it can have on their mental wellbeing and give them a way to blow off steam in safe, progressive environments.
3. Forming Identities
As we know, social skills are developed at an incredibly early age and opinions of self are formed from interactions and experiences with other children, teachers and adults. During outdoor activity and learning, children are given a different kind of space to conduct this complex social development outside of an environment that can limit them.
During team based activities, those children with behavioral issues become focused leaders, quiet children find their voices and nervous kids find strengths that surprise them. This can be attributed to the fact that they are outside of their comfort zones and in challenging situations where they are expected to work closely with their peers to achieve a goal or task.
Monitored closely by responsible and trained adults, this provides not only a clear opportunity for children to construct positive opinions of themselves, but also of each other in an environment that promotes strength of character and opportunities to fail safely, learn and then achieve.
No Simple Solutions
Issues of mental health are far from simple. Certainly for children and adults who suffer with these illnesses there is a lot more at play than just getting a bit of fresh air and exercise. There is a lot of misunderstanding around what causes mental health illness and ways to treat it.
We have the responsibility, as people who interact with groups of incredible children daily, of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and making the effort to understand, support and encourage children facing these issues.