Adventurous childhood play may buffer against anxiety and depression: study

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Children who engaged in more adventurous play that elicited excited or fearful emotions had decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to those who participated in unadventurous activities, according to a recent paper published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

 “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,” said lead author Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. 

“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.”

Children who spent more time playing outside had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The researchers conducted two studies. One Northern Ireland study in a sample of 427 parents, which they broadened into a second larger “nationally representative” sample of 1919 parents living in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) to investigate if the larger study would confirm the first study’s findings.


They defined adventurous play “as child-led play where children experience subjective feelings of excitement, thrill and fear; often in the context of age-appropriate risk-taking.”

The study surveyed parents with children ages 5-11 years during the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The parents completed three different surveys: one about their child’s play, one regarding their child’s general mental health a few weeks prior to when the pandemic started and a third that assessed if their child had symptoms of anxiety or depression during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Exposure to adventurous activities can improve children's mental health.

Exposure to adventurous activities can improve children’s mental health.

After accounting for the child’s age, sex, parent employment status and parent’s mental health, both the smaller and larger studies found that children who spend more time playing outside had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, but the larger study showed a stronger correlation for children growing up in lower income households.

The researchers speculate the stronger correlation among lower-income families might be secondary to fewer opportunities in these households for structured activities like scouts, martial arts or adventure camps, which typically provide exposure to the feelings of uncertainty and coping.

They theorize that adventurous play in lower-income households becomes more emphasized since these structured opportunities are not as available. 


The researchers also found unadventurous play was not associated with symptoms of anxiety or depression and noted the study had limitations because it relied on parental reports of play and mental health.

“More play means more happiness and less anxiety and depression,” said Dan Paskins, director of UK Impact at Save the Children. 

“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.”

City Parks Foundation is trying to keep children in New York City active, despite limited places for children to safely play outside. 

City Parks Foundation is trying to keep children in New York City active, despite limited places for children to safely play outside. 
(Photo by Erin Lefevre/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In certain parts of the country, like New York City, however, it’s not always easy to find safe places for children to play outside, but one sports director is trying to change that.

“At City Parks Foundation, one of the leading nonprofits keeping youth active in New York City, we have seen firsthand that kids have had a tough year. We also know that creating fun outdoor environments for young people to play adventurously helps them forge positive connections, build confidence and stay active,” said Mike Silverman, director of sports for City Parks Foundation. 


On July 9, he told Fox News that his foundation is partnering with the Life Time Foundation to host a Family Adventure Race in Queens to empower hundreds of parents and kids to reduce stress by participating in an exciting series of obstacles and activities together.

“This is also our first Family Adventure Race since the onset of the pandemic, which is particularly exciting, and I am pleased to share that we still have spots open for families who are interested in teaming up with their children for a fun hour of adventurous play,” Silverman added.

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