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Want to Improve Kids’ Mental Health? Get Outside

Can outdoor learning and play make a difference in kids mental health? And if so, what can we do about it? 

Outdoor chalkboard

Published on September 15, 2021

Have you noticed your relationship with the outdoors change during the pandemic? 

For many, the relative safety of outdoor activities has been essential for seeing friends and family, getting some exercise, and even just leaving the home. 

And it’s become vital for children and youth, who have spent months indoors learning remotely. Getting them outside, to play and to learn, can be key to improving their mental and physical health. 

At Evergreen, we’ve spent decades designing greener school grounds for kids to connect with nature in simple but powerful ways. 

During the pandemic, the importance of this work has taken on a new urgency. We spoke with Dr. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and speaker at our upcoming Summit, about why outdoor learning is so important for kids' health. And we chatted with Gina Brouwer, one of Evergreen’s design consultants, about how we can create school grounds that support kids’ mental and physical well-being. 

Outdoor classroom

Why Outdoors? 

Why do children benefit so much from outdoor play? 

“If each of us think back to our favourite childhood memory, it will usually be outside,” shares Dr. Brussoni. “Those are memories of being able to explore at will, see our friends, and go with the flow without adults interfering.”  

That’s no accident — Dr. Brussoni says that indoor play is an entirely different experience for kids than playing outdoors. 

“Indoors there are so many other people around, and there is a certain amount of control imposed on you,” she says. “You can’t move your body the way you can outdoors, you can’t run or shout in the same way.” 

That freedom of movement can be extremely beneficial to kids’ mental and physical health. 

Gina Brouwer, an Evergreen design consultant and landscape architect based in Cobourg, Ontario, puts this knowledge at the heart of her work. 

“Research shows that access to nature is proven to help with mental health challenges,” she says. “For kids, such a large portion of their day, and their year, is spent at school. And many of those kids don’t have regular access to nature outside of their school ground.”

Child playing in outdoor classroom

A Lack of Access 

While both Dr. Brussoni and Brouwer have known for years that being outdoors is good for kids, COVID-19 has made the need for outdoor space even clearer.  

“During COVID, kids who live in apartments have had their access to natural spaces restricted,” shares Dr. Brussoni. 

Remote learning has kept many kids indoors longer, an issue that’s made worse for those without easy access to backyards and other private outdoor spaces. 

Over the past year, both Dr. Brussoni and Brouwer have seen a major shift towards embracing outdoor learning. 

“I think pockets of possibility have emerged,” says Dr. Brussoni. “I don’t think we’ve seen such a desire and engagement with the outdoors in quite some time.”  

“There’s been a definite shift to using outdoor spaces more,” echoes Brouwer. “There’s been such a positive response from the teachers themselves — they’re asking, why haven’t we always been doing this and, how do we make our school ground more compatible to support this?” 

Children playing outdoors

Spaces that Support Health 

So how can we use this knowledge to build better school grounds for kids' wellbeing? Dr. Brussoni has researched just that. 

Dr. Brussoni says that the key to outdoor spaces for kids lies in three factors: time, freedom and space. They need the time to get outdoors and play, the freedom to play the way they want to, and the space to do so.

“Kids like to find leftover spaces, spaces adults may not even notice,” she shares. “If you provide loose parts for kids to play with — like sticks, sand, rocks or tarps — they get to be part of designing their own space.”  

By doing this, you’re giving kids the space to let imagination shape their play.  

Brouwer brings this perspective into her work designing school grounds. Over the past year, she’s been working on Evergreen’s climate-ready school pilot at Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ontario, consulting with the community’s kids, parents and teachers to create a plan for a school ground that will provide a wide range of outdoor spaces for kids to explore. 

“When we design a school ground for outdoor learning and play, we want to create many different spaces — outdoor seating, spaces for gathering, sheltered spaces, spaces for quiet play and spaces for active play.” 

Working with Irma Coulson’s students, Brouwer heard which spaces on the schoolground were already important to the children, and factored that into the final design. 
 
“They have a sense of ownership of these spaces, they often already have names for the different areas of the school ground based on the space’s characteristics.”  

The design of the school ground will include plenty of green spaces for kids to interact with nature as they learn and play. Those same features will serve a dual purpose — helping to make the space climate-ready by improving water drainage and adding more shade for temperature control.

Learn More 

Want to learn more about Evergreen’s work building greener, climate-ready school grounds? Visit our project page to learn more, or connect with our children’s program, a team of talented outdoor educators offering virtual workshops, videos and a monthly outdoor classroom newsletter. 

You can also hear more of Dr. Brussoni’s insights by attending her panel discussion Reimagining Outdoor Play and Learning: A Canadian School Ground Story at Future Cities Canada: The Summit, on September 22 at 10 am EST. Register today!