Benefits of Outdoor Play and Nature for Mental Health

When I saw that Earth Day was coming up, (today, April 22), I knew that I wanted to write a post relating the occasion to mental health. The purpose of Earth Day is to demonstrate support for environmental protection and I know that there is a definite connection between the environment and our mental health.

At first, I wasn’t sure how I could make the connection, but then I visited the Earth Day Canada website and learned about this year’s theme: outdoor play. I was immediately intrigued and knew that I had an opportunity for an interesting article.  Here is the text that explains the theme:

“Remember how you played as a child? Did you spend a lot of time outside, building forts, climbing trees, inventing new games and get your hands dirty, without any grownups interfering? This type of play is rapidly disappearing from our world. Why does Earth Day Canada care so much, and why should you? Because kids who don’t get outside, who aren’t stimulated by their environment, won’t grow up with any motivation to protect our planet. And kids who don’t connect to their inner nature through creative play won’t be as resilient as generations before them.”

The Love of Nature

Children can benefit from outdoor play that is self-directed and unstructured. It helps build important skills such as ingenuity. Exploring the natural world around us also improves our mental health. Enjoying nature is an inherent part of being human. There is even a term for it – biophilia, a theory introduced by biologist Edward O. Wilson, PhD, which asserts that “humans have an innate affinity for the natural world.”


Green Space and Mental Health

A recent study substantiates the popular claim that there is a positive connection between “green spaces” and good mental health”. It suggests that people who access parks for 30 minutes or more on a weekly basis decrease their likelihood to have poor mental health compared to those who do not visit parks on a regular basis.

Playing outdoors can improve the mental health of youth because it gives an opportunity for physical activity, for social contact and forging relationships with other children. I read another study which showed that having nature nearby boosts the resilience of children against stress and adversity. Playing outdoors also increases fitness levels, and improves physical capabilities such as motor skills like coordination, balance and agility. We all know that there is a strong link between physical health and mental health. Outdoor play can also help improve our critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork, creativity and independence, among other things.


Vitamin D

Being outdoors is also great because you are getting exposed to the sun! While we definitely want to practice safety when it comes to sun exposure (lather on that SPF!), there are benefits to catching some rays. Vitamin D is linked to the release of the hormone serotonin. A study in 2008 found that teenagers with higher levels of serotonin encounter more positive emotions, and teenagers with lower levels of serotonin are more likely to respond to negative emotions with self-destructive behaviour.

A photo by Alexander Dummer.

Nature And The Mental Health of Adults

But being in nature isn’t just for children – the benefits of the outdoors have been studied significantly. There’s even a term – ecotherapy – which refers to using outdoor activities to improve emotional well-being. This could include engaging in activities like gardening or farming, or just going on a hike through the woods. Adults who live in cities versus rural settings are definitely impacted differently by nature. A study found that those who lived in greener areas had a 12 percent lower mortality rate compared with those living in areas that were more urban. It has also been proven that city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders in comparison to “country mice”. (If you don’t get that reference, I can’t help you). Individuals born/raised in cities are also two times as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.


My Personal Experience

There is so much more research that I could reference – it’s a well-documented subject. For more interesting statistics, studies, and professional opinions, you can visit this link, here, here and here. To end this off, I’d like to discuss my own, subjective, anecdotal and non-evidence based experienced with nature.

As a woman whose life is firmly entrenched in the city, I don’t get a lot of chance to properly interact with nature. Sure, I see some trees when I walk down side streets in the suburbs, but most of my life consists of travelling from skyscraper to skyscraper. However, I definitely feel a sense of love towards the natural world and try to embrace it as much as possible. Whether this means stopping by High Park in Toronto, where you can take a leisurely hike among the tall leafy trees, or strolling along the Beltline near Evergreen Brickworks or going camping in a national park, I definitely have had my fair share of awe-inspiring experiences with nature. There is no better feeling than standing in a quiet forest, with the wind gently blowing against you and the sound of birds chirping enveloping you completely. When I am surrounded by nature, I feel more alive. I feel more connected with the world and I feel more human. It really impacts my mental health because experiencing nature provides a high that just can’t be replicated.

















Unfortunately, our natural world is at threat of being destroyed by global warming and human intervention. In honour of Earth Day, if you can afford it, make a donation to a charity that works on improving the environment.  Here’s a list of twelve organizations to start with! If you can’t afford to make a donation, that’s okay! There are other ways you can get involved. You can share this article, for one thing! Or you can raise awareness of environmental issues by retweeting one of these charities or sharing an infographic on Facebook. Or you can volunteer your time or skills to make a difference.

Do you love spending time in nature? Tell me about how it has benefited your own mental health in the comments below.



4 comments on “Benefits of Outdoor Play and Nature for Mental Health

  1. Being outdoors is very good for everyone. The benefits are very positive. It is very uplifting. I agree that children who spend time outdoors playing is very beneficial for their well being. This article is excellent and it is important to have a balance of outdoor play and to explore nature. Very appropriate article for Earth Day!


  2. My depression is year-round, but worse in the winter. I get so, so excited when spring comes around because I know I’m going to get to be outside in the sun and dirt. I also have little brothers and nephews that I want to help instill that love of nature and outside play in, so going to the park together is a huge win-win. I wake up the next day feeling positive and excited to get out and play again. It’s rewarding and simple. Great article!


  3. As someone only 2.5 months into the world of mental illness, knowing that my challenge – bipolar – is hereditary has given me a lot to think about with regards to my kids. I went and bought them an outdoor playset, with the goal of getting them outside, and active. I always think of that scene in Forrest Gump when he asks Jenny if little Forrest is “like him,” you know? Thank you for sharing this 🙂


  4. Pingback: Why My Solo Trip To British Columbia Improved My Mental Health – Slay Girl Society

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