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Neuropsychology

Adventurous play ‘supports children’s mental health’

It also enabled children to be more positive during the first COVID-19 lockdown, the research finds

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Children who spend more time taking part in adventurous play activities have lower levels of anxiety and depression, a new study has revealed. 

The University of Exeter research sought to test theories that adventurous play offers learning opportunities that help build resilience in children, thereby helping to prevent mental health problems.

The study found that children who spend more time playing outside – and taking part in activities including exploring woods, camping out, swimming in a river or lake, trying new outdoor skills and creating obstacle courses – had fewer ‘internalising problems’, characterised as anxiety and depression. Those children were also more positive during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Results were consistent even after researchers factored in a wide range of demographic variables including child sex, age, parent employment status and parent mental health.

The research was carried out with two groups – 427 parents living in Northern Ireland and a nationally-representative group of 1919 parents from across The Great British countries of England, Wales and Scotland. 

Among the Great Britain group, it was also found that the effect of adventurous play was more pronounced in children from lower income families than those growing up in higher income households.

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the of the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “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. 

“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.”

Dan Paskins, director of UK Impact at Save the Children, said: “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.  

“More play means more happiness and less anxiety and depression.” 

Jacqueline O’Loughlin, chief executive of PlayBoard NI, said: “This research emphasises 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. 

“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.”

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