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4 Ways Outdoor Play Helps Develop Resilience In Children

Outdoor play is key to the health and well-being of children. Getting muddy and staying out till sunset is great for children’s development and can help them refine their motor coordination skills.

Kids who play outdoors have improved cognitive skills, too. A recent systematic review found that children who have regular access to green spaces show improved “mental well-being, overall health, and cognitive development.” Children who play outside also had better self-discipline and showed signs of improved behavior.

Playing in fields and local parks may be particularly important for children who have undergone adverse experiences in early life. Mother nature is a buffer against trauma and gives kids a chance to build confidence and play with other children in a safe environment.

Building Trust

Spending quality time with parents and trusted adults can significantly improve the health and well-being of children who have undergone adverse childhood experiences (ACES). A recent survey from the University of Harvard found that “one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or another adult” is the most “common factor for children who develop resilience.”

Road trips and camp-outs give kids a chance to connect with nature in the safety of a controlled environment. Playing outdoors with a committed adult carer gives children a buffer from the hardships of the world and can facilitate strong child-adult relationships. Over time, trustworthy adults can boost self-efficacy, strengthen resilience-related skills, and give children a sense of control over their environment.

Age-appropriate, health-promoting outdoor activities can be followed up with health and safety tips to improve children’s overall health. These tips can build life-long resiliency in children and help improve their self-reliance. Even simple changes, like adopting a skin-cleansing routine, hydrating, and monitoring sun exposure can support children’s long-term health and give them a sense of control over their physical well-being. Supportive, trusting relationships can improve children’s ability to cope with setbacks as they age, too.

Coping with Setbacks

Outdoor play is a great way to simulate the challenges that children with ACES will face in real-life. Outdoor activities like sports won’t always go children’s way, and many kids experience setbacks while learning to ride bikes or play soccer. By playing outdoors regularly, children get to practice dealing with setbacks in a low-stakes environment that won’t have any consequences in the long term.

Children who have been through ACES may be hesitant to play outdoors with other kids. Rather than forcing children to play outside with friends, parents can carers can help their kids spend more time outdoors by facilitating stress-reducing activities like:

  • Gardening;
  • Outdoor yoga;
  • Kayaking;
  • Practicing photography or painting outside.

These activities still involve “failure” on some level. Kids who help in the garden will have to cope with the fact that some plants simply don’t grow while others blossom. Likewise, children who participate in yoga will have to adopt a resilient mindset to improve their skills and balance over time. These safe setbacks are perfect for kids who have undergone ACES in their formative years.

Nature and Mood

Learning to overcome setbacks is key to the long-term happiness and resilience of children. However, life doesn’t have to be a constant challenge. Sometimes, children who have been through ACES just need to blow off some steam and lose themselves in the joy of outdoor play.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that ACES can be eased by regular exposure to nature. Researchers found that the protective and therapeutic potential of time in nature can result in  “improved mood and emotional regulation” in children with ACES. The study also suggested that nature can alleviate psychological distress, depression, and anxiety, while improving common conditions like eating disorders and conduct problems.

Parents and carers who want to improve the resilience of their children via outdoor play should consider adopting a pet. Pets are great for our mental health and can improve children’s moods, ease anxiety, and help kids overcome loneliness. Always ensure that you do your research and have the financial resources in place prior to adopting an animal. It is also important to recognize that if your child needs emotional support or other forms of assistance, having a service or support animal can be beneficial. The US Service Animal & Support Animal network can help adults find an animal that is appropriate for their child and has been trained to offer emotional support that boosts children’s mood.

Improved Physical Health

Resilience and physical health go hand-in-hand. As Ingrid Cockhren, PACEs Connection CEO and co-host of the podcast “History. Culture. Trauma” explains, “There is a clear link between our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and our physical body.” Ignoring the physical well-being of children with ACES is short-sighted, and may undermine efforts to build resilience.

Regular outdoor play can support improved physical health by mitigating the risk of conditions like short-sightedness and obesity while improving motor coordination, cardiovascular health, and bone growth. Just being out in the sunshine is wonderful for children’s well-being, and maximizes their chances of growing up to become healthy, resilient members of society.


Outdoor play is a powerful tool for building resilience in children who have undergone ACES. Playing in nature can improve children’s cognitive skills, boost self-efficacy, and support physical development. Outdoor play also gives children a safe space to overcome setbacks and rebuild trust. Age-appropriate, engaging activities like camping, yoga, and playing with a pet can support children as they learn to navigate the wider world again.


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