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“It’s too cold to play outside today…”

Remembering the benefits of early years outdoor play for children’s brains and bodies post Coronavirus Pandemic


It’s (almost) winter in the UK – 21st December
It’s becoming persistently cold outside.
And it’s the perfect lab for whole body experimentation! may still have early years practitioners in your setting that resist outdoor play on a cold and frosty winter’s day. It’s a long time to till Spring (21st March) so let’s remind ourselves of the benefits of being outdoors for our brains and bodies.

Children will never care about that which they have never experienced – David Attenborough

There’s a tendency to avoid outdoor play in winter, often stemmed from adult’s personal preference to be warm and their assumption that children share these same feelings. Being outdoors doesn’t mean you have to be cold, however. There's plenty of ways to shift that mindset culture - maybe another blog post in the future?! Early years settings on the other hand are largely ill-equipped and ill-informed, perhaps because adult’s perceptions influence what resources are seen as priority and so understanding the body and brain benefits of winter provision seem somewhat undiscovered.

Speaking of discovery, it’s only recently that we are learning about the impact of Coronavirus on children’s mental health and well-being. Take a look at these stats taken from The People and Nature Survey for England 2021

  • Coronavirus has had an impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing, with half (48%) of children interviewed reporting that being worried about catching / spreading coronavirus had stopped them from spending more time outside.

  • Six in ten children (60%) reported to have spent less time outdoors since the start of coronavirus, more than double the proportion that had spent more time outside (25%).

  • 81% of children stated that they had spent less time outside with friends.

  • Only 20% reported bad weather stopping them playing outdoors

The benefits of playing outdoors

Professor Jan White (2019) speaks of how the stuff of the earth works differently outdoors than in: water, soil, rock and plants. She champions how these are the best materials for learning and developing as they offer the strongest and most relevant experiences. Add the variety and spontaneity of the weather and seasons into the mix and you’ve got a magical learning opportunity waiting to be invited!

Perhaps then if we understood the brain and the body a little better, we may see the learning opportunities of the outdoors through a different lens – a lens of good mental health and well-being.

The body

Children have an innate biological tendency to bond with the natural world known as biophilia. (White and Stoecklin 2012).

It’s an intrinsic connection that we all seek. It brings us capacity to think, feel, communicate, create and find meaning in our lives much more easily than indoors. What’s special about this connection is that it gives us easy access to our brain’s pro-social chemicals – the stuff that makes us feel good.

But that’s not all. Children’s brains and bodies are equally nourished when we stimulate and develop all their senses. Children find the answers to their own curiosities by doing, doing and doing again. Repeated experiences feed their brains with immediate and future stores of sensory information that they can use again and again.

Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400

repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain - unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10-20 repetitions.

Unfortunately, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses are often unheard of in early years settings yet provide the golden ticket not only for physical development

but also good mental health and well-being.

Our bodies have sensory nerve endings which notice what happens when our bodies change position. So, when children move their whole bodies, they develop proprioceptors. Their bodies recognise what happens when their nerve endings receive stimuli through movement and store this information for immediate and future use. It’s an essential part of a healthy nervous system. We still need to stimulate it in winter.

The Brain

When children play outdoors a brain chemical called dopamine is stimulated much more than indoors.

Children’s serotonin levels are also happiest when amongst nature - just 20 minutes a day can help to reset our serotonin levels and activate our seeking system which supports how our brain wires up to our frontal lobes; the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning, logical thought, problem solving etc. Remember, children cannot access their frontal lobes from birth, the only way to wire into this part of the brain is through positive, repeated experiences and interactions!

Natural light, sounds of safety (birds, breeze etc) and array of colour helps our bodies to release an anti-stress chemical called oxytocin. This helps our brains to calm and regulate. Ever heard the saying ‘the wild calms the child’ – well, now you know why.

Reflective questions

  1. How does the cold offer unique opportunities for discovery?

  2. What fascinates children when they play outdoors in winter?

  3. How has understanding the brain and body benefits of playing outdoors changed your thinking?

So, rather than think what’s the best use of the outdoors, let’s think more about the best use with the outdoors – winter is here to stay so let's embrace it!


If you’d like to read more about how to embrace the weather and its unique learning opportunities, take a look at our guest blog with Siren Films about puddle play!


Thanks for reading!



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