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When it comes to mental health, outdoor play is serious business

When I was a child growing up in Durham, NC, my siblings and I preferred to play outside. The world seemed to offer itself to our imaginations, from the box turtles and blue-tailed skinks that populated the yard to the promised adrenaline rush of roller skating as fast as we could on the streets of our neighborhood. Outside offered much more to us than could be found within the walls of our house.

In our minds, being indoors simply did not have much allure or many options for fun – we only had three networks and a glitchy, pixelated Commodore 64 gaming system. Today, nature faces stiff competition from satellite and streaming services, smart phones and high-def gaming systems. Screen dependency disorder has become a real phenomenon. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of adolescents are too inactive.

Prying children away from their devices may feel like a thankless effort, but in an era when mental health needs among children and adolescents have reached crisis levels, it’s never been more important to get young people outdoors and active.

Play is a workout for the body and the mind

When we think of the health benefits of outdoor activity, physical fitness probably comes first to mind. But exercise supports cognitive development and improves mental health.

Unstructured outdoor play is an especially potent medicine. Getting outdoors yields psychological benefits that children just don’t get through physical exercise in a gym. Studies on green exercise have shown that:

  • Promotes emotional and social resilience
  • Encourages the development of motor skills
  • Supports emotional well-being
  • Improves academic performance

When children go outside, all their senses engage with the world around them. They take in the fresh air. They can feel the sun’s warmth and touch the tiny ridges on a blade of grass. They smell flowers and greenery. They hear birds sing. As North Carolina’s Division of Child Development and Early Education points out, outdoor play spaces provide opportunities for children “to play freely with peers, expand their imagination beyond the restraints of indoor activities, release energy, and explore.”

Of course, playtime also supports physical health as well. Extended periods of outdoor activities can reduce a child’s risk of obesity, and carefully moderated exposure to sunshine produces vitamin D, which promotes bone development and a healthy immune system.

Furthermore, exercise capacity is associated with cognitive performance. Children who have higher exercise capacity have an increased ability to sustain their attention and have better working memory.

Building better access to safe playspace

Encouraging children to get outside should be an easy option for any parent or caregiver wanting to instill healthy behaviors that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, for many children, finding outdoor place to play isn’t so simple.

Green spaces to romp around and explore aren’t equitably distributed. In many cities and towns, families living in affluent areas have greater access to parks (PDF), greenways and community gardens. These areas are scarce in many historically underserved communities.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) understands that sidewalks and parking lots don’t offer the same opportunities for safe, imaginative play that green spaces and playgrounds do. Every child should have a safe place to jump around. That’s why we regularly support efforts to build and refurbish public spaces that promote overall well-being for individuals, families and communities.

Recently, the City of Durham, Durham Parks and Recreation, Blue Cross NC and KABOOM! collaborated on the creation of a new playspace at Durham's Burton Park, giving hundreds of kids access to a safe, high-quality place to play.

The new playground features swings, sliding boards and a variety of inclusive play panels. Best of all, it was designed by the children themselves. In February, local children were invited to draw their own vision of the ideal park. These sketches helped shape the actual Burton Park playspace design. What better environment to spark young imaginations than a play space that was actually inspired by young imaginations?

The park beautification project will also feature new trees, picnic tables and shelters, creating the sort of green communal space that can revitalize the soul and promote family togetherness.

This latest build was our 15th in the state, and our 3rd in Durham, reflecting Blue Cross NC’s broad support for greater access to outdoor play and exercise opportunities across North Carolina. In addition, we have also helped create greenway trails, outdoor learning spaces and one of the largest bike share systems in the southeast.

This work aligns with our strategic focus on whole-person health. When people get outdoors, they are healthier and happier. By these measures, investing in outdoor play space is a remarkable bargain.

The benefits of play span a life

In my adulthood, much of my time away from work is spent creating space and community to encourage outdoor play. This has included creating a food forest in our yard for my own children and coaching my son’s soccer team to ensure a positive and joyful introduction to the sport for him and his teammates.

Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from the outdoors. Adults have a lot to gain from outdoor play too. Research has shown that outdoor activities can help address depression and dementia. They can relieve anxiety and improve concentration. Being outdoors can promote relaxation and minimize anger.

The science is clear: children of every age need to play. Outdoor activity strengthens our bodies and our minds. On top of all that, it’s just fun to visit a park.

authors photo

Nora Dennis, MD MSPH

Nora Dennis, MD MSPH

Lead Medical Director for Behavioral Health

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