Nature and Mental Health, Go Outside and Play!

by | May 10, 2022 | Activities, Family, Mental Health

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What is it about nature that calms us? How are nature and mental health related? Nature makes our mind be at rest and our bodies relax. You’ve experienced it when you are out for a walk, or relaxing at a beach.

boy climbing on stump- nature and mental health

It really is true that nature helps our mental health. Let’s use that power to help our kids. Let’s use nature to combat stress. Your child’s mental health is very important in their development. Children live through their senses. The experiences with their senses link their exterior world with their interior world.

Healthy mental development means having the freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment. Nature offers solitude. Green space allows for social interaction.

outdoor play

Outdoor play is important for developing minds and bodies. Why outdoors?  Three key factors in playing outdoors are:

  •   The outdoor engages your senses
  • The outdoors inspires the mind
  •   The outdoors is the perfect setting for learning about risks and accepting challenges.

Natural stimuli are gentle, subtle, and restorative. Being outdoors in nature offers the best sensory experience. There is limitless potential in nature. Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and for learning and creativity. Playing outdoors in natural settings provides more physically activity for kids than organized sports or activities.


This also helps children regulate their big emotions. By navigating independently, it builds their self-confidence. Children have more opportunity to take risks in nature in a healthy way. For example, they may try to climb a tree or walking across a log and fail. But they try again and succeed. This creates perseverance.  It also provides children the chance to use their five senses. This helps children to be aware of how they are feeling. And what is making them feel a certain way. Overall, it helps a child to feel calmer and happier.

There are 7 different ways outdoor play is healthy for kids.

  1. Nature is calming
  2. Nature improves visual sense
  3. Improves eye function
  4. Fosters listening
  5. Enhances the sense of touch
  6. Exposure to different materials
  7. Provides exercise

Children learn about boundaries or personal limits. These situations happen naturally when playing outdoors. For example, children waiting to get on equipment or climb a tree learn how to do those things through interacting with other children.

Empathy and Self Esteem

During outdoor play children become teachers and learners, sharing their knowledge to help others and complete tasks. Children develop empathy through these connections with other students by witnessing feelings and needs.

girl playing in creek

Unstructured play opportunities give children experience and promote self-esteem, autonomy and confidence. The characteristics of the open and unpredictable enable the development of collaborative goals between children which leads to companionship among peers. 

Playing outdoors provides  children the opportunity to either choose to play with others or independently because there is more natural space to use. Being outside in nature gives children the opportunity to learn how to take turns, share and interact with other children. While playing different games they interact with other children and improve their communication, which provides more stability and less meltdowns. This is nature and mental health working together.

Five benefits of children playing outside

1.       Builds physically healthy children by promoting exercise.

2.       Contributes to cognitive and social/emotional development.

3.       Improves sensory skills

4.       Increases attention skills

5.       Better immunity through exposure to the sun/Vitamin D.peration and reduce stress.

Fun Fact

Play changes the connections of neurons at the front of the brain, and is healthy and important for children. These connections are very important for children being able to regulate their emotions, making plans and solving problems.

Children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and trying new things. This type of environment continuously presents different choices for creativity.

Daily Play

Daily exposure or play in the outdoors stimulates the brain in many ways that benefit kids.

1.      Children are given the opportunity to use their imagination with the tools that are outside already. A stick, rock or pinecone become part of their play.

2.      There are endless possibilities which create challenges in different ways.

3.      Children can choose to play using large muscles or they can choose to sit under a tree and read a book or make an art project out of leaves.

Playing outdoors has many benefits for kids. Outdoors has limitless possibilities for play, exploring the senses, and socially interacting with others. It will challenge and strengthen their sense of touch, vision, hearing, smell and taste.  Having creative tools outside is different too. Having sticks and leaves to use helps the creative process. Sticks can be used as fishing poles or building a fort.  A stick may also become a horse or a boat or even an obstacle course.

It is a place that one can

  •   relax the mind
  •   be inspired
  •   use their imagination
  •   create
  •   explore

Even nature sounds relieve stress. Sounds like birds, wind, rain or flowing water also help to relive stress. Going for a walk in the park or sitting under a tree offers a feeling of calm and peacefulness. A child’s mood and self-esteem are impacted by being out in nature.

girls in woods with binoculars


The textures in nature like a butterfly, caterpillar or a smooth rock distract kids from their worries to something more positive and intriguing. Being in and around water can calm our bodies and minds. The rhythmic whooshing sounds are non-threatening. Natural sun light can have a huge impact on our mental health.

Time spent in nature will

  •   Boost your mood
  •   Reduce stress
  •   Help you feel positive emotions like joy, wonder and happiness

Nature as a stress reliever

Much of our learning comes from doing, from making, from feeling without hands. Kids need direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods. Nature can trigger dopamine and serotonin release, which relieves stress and improves happiness when moving.

These experiences are necessary for mental health. Kids have feelings of peace, contentment, and belonging when they’re in nature, by water or trees. The quiet calm of nature is contagious, leaving a quiet calm mind.

The importance of being outside in nature is more evident now than ever! Time for outdoor play is diminishing.  Children need to be outdoors to develop important social skills for life.

Unstructured play builds self-confidence, problem solving and success in interacting with others. Children experience freedom, gross motor movements, stronger immune system and physical activity. This benefits kids both mentally and physically.

Helping our kids better manage stress and anxiety through using resources like nature benefits everyone. Nature and mental health go hand in hand. Exploration in nature provides parents with the tools to support their children. Your child will feel calmer and happier. Isn’t that what all parents want for their children?

Nature and Mental Health, Go Outside and Play!

by Dr. Kim Grengs, Ed. D., Parent Coach

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