I had an interview with the wonderful Sarah Seamen from Muddy Puddle Teacher earlier this week for their podcast. My publisher had told me the topic was about how getting outdoors benefits mental health (as mentioned in my book, ‘What’s going on inside my head?‘) and I was fully ready to talk, at length, about this but somehow (ooo could it be my scattergun brain?) we ended up having quite a different conversation. So in place of that, I thought I’d write a blog post about getting outside instead.
It’s one of those things that everyone knows about isn’t it: going outside is good for us, but, yet, it’s still something we can sometimes forget to fit into our busy day-to-day existences. I am hooked on the outdoors and yet here I am indoors typing on my computer. There’s a gloriously sunny day out there and I won’t be able to resist it for long.
As a kid, I was outdoors a lot. I got up to all sorts: walking our dog, building dens, cycling for miles, climbing trees, swimming in the river, climbing on roofs, exploring to find new places you hadn’t been to, camping (I saved up for a ridge tent and camped in my back garden for ages at one point), playing elaborate task-orientated mission games with mates (I was an unusual kid), roller-skating, playing with insects, playing swingball (hours), badminton and football, setting trails and varied mischievous activities including dares that resulted in stern tellings off that I’d best not elaborate on. I loved still being warm in the cold because you were on the go all the time, I loved it when dusk arrived and your eyes adjusted so well you didn’t realise it was dark until you got home, I loved the bit where you got home and took your wellies off and could slump into a soft chair in front of the gas fire and I loved that feeling of exhaustion: that wholesome, tingling, ‘I’ve been outside’ all day exhaustion. It all felt good.
And of course, that is going to be my point isn’t it (rhetorical mark). It does feel good. It’s not just the endorphins you might get from any exercise you might do outdoors, it’s more than that. This is my take on why being outside is good for me:
- If I find myself ruminating about something, I go for a walk. I know what will happen: for the first part of the walk, I will ruminate more but as I continue, eventually my head empties and I become more ‘present’ and mindful.
- I always return from a walk in a better mood than the one I left with – even if I start off completely content.
- Much of our life demands intentional focus – do this, do that, think about this, think about that. With much of my time outdoors, especially on walks, unintentional focus is all that is required of me. I might notice a tree, spot a flower, notice a fantastic view but not because I am searching for them, just because I come across them. This is relaxing for my ADHD brain. I think the unintentional focus of going for a walk is relaxing for all brains.
- The outdoors has less mental distraction. When you’re outdoors, you’re usually just doing one thing. I find that when I am doing one thing outdoors – whether it be gardening, walking and talking, fixing or making something etc I tend to only focus on that one thing, probably because I am not able to be distracted by all pending things I could engage with indoors.
- The greenery and peace of the outdoors can be soothing. I know there is much research about going outdoors and the mental health benefits such as mood elevation, depression and anxiety reduction, stress relief etc but I know I just feel instantly calmer once I find myself in a park or in the countryside.
So here is my sketchy list of things you can do outdoors with children:
On a walk/in the park:
- Find as many different shades of green as you can.
- Take a photo of the same spot once a month for a year and watch how the seasons change the view.
- Do a random walk although you will want to adjust this slightly as I made it for a (grown up) friend and me to do. (For an urban walk)
- Make stick and plant collages of people.
- Take a tree/flower identification book and see how many you can identify.
- Play Jack Straws with sticks.
- In a park, blindfold one person and take them on a guided walk and see if they can guess where they have ended up before you take the blindfold off.
- Fly a kite!
- Plan a walk on a map and then go and do it.
- Make some sculptures with twigs and leaves with the only ‘extra’ allowed being cotton.
- Take photos of a favourite toy on an outdoors adventure and put it together to make a book.
- Do a scavenger hunt: a feather, a pine cone, a thorn, a yellow leaf, three different edge leaves, three different types of seed, something torn into a square, a tiny flower, a blade of grass tied in a knot, a petal, something that can make a noise, exactly six of the same (or very similar) thing. (some things from my outdoor scavenger hunt Free Time Activities 9-11!)
- Decorate some clothes pegs or pebbles with kind messages and peg/place them for a stranger to find somewhere in a park or in the street.
- Whittle some patterns on a stick during a break in your walk.
- Skim stones across a river.
- Play, ‘be the first to bring me’…e.g. an oak leaf, two blades of grass tied together, a stone, your shoes, a feather etc
- Or, of course, just walk!
In a garden/playground:
- Decorate a tree with wool.
- Make a scarecrow.
- Make small chair our of natural materials using only string.
- Draw a chalk line around a puddle and watch it evaporate.
- Make some words/signs using natural materials: e.g. ‘nature area’ written with twigs.
- Take some adjectives outside and see if you can find something that could be described by them e.g. flat, spiky, grey, straight, furry, shiny, rough, smooth, bobbly, yellow, flexible, brittle, etc
- Scatter and collect. Makes some different coloured funky foam squares (the same number of each colour). Scatter and ask each participating child to collect only their own colour squares for a set amount of time. The winner is the one with the most squares. (Frantic and harder than it sounds!)
- Collage a shape e.g. a frog, using torn pieces of leaves.
- Make a wind strength detector e.g. different numbers of cardboard squares tied along a cane – one square, two squares stuck together, three and so on. The stronger the wind, the more cardboard squares the wind will pick up.
- Make a ‘no touch’ obstacle course using chairs, skipping ropes etc.
- Make caterpillars our of joined up card circles. See how many different decorations children can come up with using things from outside and some glue. Each child can decorate one or more circles.
- Give children some photos (taken previously) of detailed parts of an outdoor space and see if children can locate the place you took the photo from.
- Hunt for different musical notes by striking different objects (e.g. fences, drains, drainpipes). You could compare notes with a xylophone!
- Build a pen for a hamster using just natural materials.
- Make a ‘green man’ face decorated with materials from outdoors. You could make the face out of clay.
- Hold an ‘ugly’ monster contest where children make the ugliest monster collage using natural materials.
- Make a trail of wool tied to things for children to follow blindfolded (carefully) for an unusual experience. Children could try and search for and pick up things on the way to make them explore more with their hands. e.g. balloons tied nearby the string, or something that makes a quiet sound that they have to listen out for e.g. toy windmills, small bells.
- Personify a tree. Ask children to imagine what a particular tree’s voice would be like and the kind of things it might want to say.
- Create aiming games e.g. chalked tennis ball hitting a chalked target on a wall, bean bags in a bucket, pine cones in a hoop.
- Find as many different shades/colours as you can from nature to stain a piece of paper – or better still – colour a large picture in.
- Make a trail using arrows (cardboard or chalk). The ‘player’ walks along the route. Prior to this people have hidden somewhere within talking distance along the trail. The player has to try and ‘collect’ the hidden people as they walk along the route by guessing where they are hidden and declaring ‘I think someone is…’. They only get the same number of guesses as the number of people who are hidden so they need to guess wisely (or cheat quietly!) This can work well in a wood.
- Make leaf faces by folding a leaf and cutting a mouth, nose and eyes and then unfolding the leaf.
- Try and make a small crazy paving path for a toy using stones pushed into the earth. You could add other garden features too to make a teddy’s garden.
- Make three different star shapes using three different materials from outside.
- Find different flowers and categorise them by how many petals they have. Try and draw the pattern the petals make when you look down the centre of the flower.
- Tie balloons around everyone’s ankles. The winner is the last balloon not popped!
- Set pitfall traps.
- Find ‘jigsaw’ pieces. Two or more objects from nature than can be put together to make a whole (actually quite a problem-solving task).
- Make a teddy’s/toy’s den.
- Use paint to print a wallpaper pattern using things from nature.
- Make a sundial using chalk or cardboard and pen etc
- Hide different coloured pegs in an outdoor space and send children hunting for their colour.
- Try doing something using your non-dominant hand only. e.g. tie a skipping rope in a knot, aim at a target.
- A simple game of hide and seek – but with a toy hiding somewhere.
- With a large group of children, play follow the leader along the lines painted on a playground. Take it in turns to be the leader.
- For my daughter’s 12th birthday, we did ‘dares in the park’ with her friends. e.g. take a balloon for a walk, hang up some washing on a line between two trees, put on these tiara and pearls and go and be posh on the swings. etc Pitched perfectly for 12 year olds!
- Shut your eyes and list every single sound you can hear in five minutes.
- Sit still in one place and list as many things as you can see in five minutes.