01 September 2023

Outdoor movement has a beneficial effect on children’s mental and physical health as well as social development. Sadly, schools barely meet this need

Physical activities and contact with nature prevent physical illnesses, reduce stress in children, ensure fuller intellectual development, and positively affect social interaction and mental well-being. Meanwhile, the summer vacation is ending, and children will return to the desks where some will be "chained" for most days.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: Olivia Bauso/Unsplash

The impact of physical activity on a child’s development and well-being has been discussed for years. Numerous scientific studies show that physical exercise, especially that undertaken outdoors, improves concentration and cognitive abilities in students, reduces their stress and anxiety levels, develops motor coordination, and strengthens the skeletal system ( this is due to exposure to the sun, as a result of which the human body metabolizes vitamin D.)

That’s not all. A dose of outdoor sports exercise prevents obesity, heart problems, depression, and eye diseases. In addition, children who spend a lot of time in nature are more concerned about the environment and have stronger social interactions (students, while playing games together outdoors, learn cooperation, communication, and conflict-solving).

Despite numerous scientific studies and decades of discussion about the need to increase physical activity for children and adolescents, the reality of most public schools worldwide is different. Students tend to sit motionless in their desks during lessons (they are sometimes subjected to reprimands for “fidgeting”), and at break time, they go out into the corridor (where running, jumping, and chasing each other is also sometimes frowned upon). The exception is found in Finland, where many lessons are held in nature, and children are compulsorily taken outside during every break.

A healthy mind in a healthy body. Evidence

Already, the ancients emphasized that “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Modern science provides a great deal of evidence that they were right.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that regular physical activity can help children and adolescents improve cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles, control weight, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce the risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and obesity.

Moreover, numerous studies also indicate the positive impact of physical activity on children’s well-being and cognitive abilities. Darla Castelli, in a paper entitled “Physical Activity, Fitness, and Cognitive Function in Children and Adolescents,” proves that participation in light to vigorous intensity physical activity cognitively benefits children. Students who are aerobically fit and regularly physically active are faster, more accurate responders and and achieve better learning results.

Also, the authors of the paper “Children’s Physical Activity, Academic Performance, and Cognitive Functioning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” (published in Frontiers Public Heath, 2020) prove a correlation between physical activity and students’ ability to concentrate and higher cognitive abilities. Regular physical activity teaches children to cope with stress and fatigue, positively affects the speed of information absorption, and reduces anxiety.

School reality

One would expect that in the face of ample evidence documenting the positive effects of physical exercise on students’ physical, mental, social, and cognitive performance, schools worldwide would take the issue of providing students with an adequate dose of physical activity.

Meanwhile, according to observations of schools worldwide (including those conducted by the Holistic Think Tank, which considered schools in 10 countries around the world, on five continents), physical education lessons are often tedious, repetitive, and disliked by students. They tend to focus on playing team games, which are not every student’s favorite form of physical activity. Furthermore, in many places there are simply not enough of them.

According to a UNESCO document titled “World-wide survey of school physical education: final report” (2013), which collected data from 232 countries, globally, students spend an average of 103 minutes a week in physical education classes (depending on the country: from 25 to 220 minutes). Scientists and doctors point out that more is needed; to ensure the proper development of children, the world average should be twice as much.

Particularly in the modern world, where physical activity after school has been replaced by online action. As a result, more and more students are suffering from conditions such as type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, depression, and, most significantly, obesity. The problem is veryacute in the United States, where, according to the Department of Health, one in three children is already significantly overweight.

Naturally, certain pedagogical movements (e.g., Montessori) pay special attention to the need for physical movement, and in the institutions they run, many activities take place outdoors. However, in most public schools, still based on the Prussian model of education, school means mainly learning at desks and short breaks – also spent in the classroom, alternatively in the school corridor.

(Another) inspiration from Finland

The exception is Finnish education, which has undergone an internationally admired reform. There, classes, whenever possible, are held outdoors – and this is despite the relatively harsh climate in Scandinavia. Kids learn in gazebos, benches outside the school, playing fields, parks, or the forest. Teachers also often take students on longer trips to a lake or nature reserve. Children return to school classrooms mainly to repeat material learned outside.

Breaks are indispensably spent outdoors, and this is regardless of the weather. In Finnish schools, locker rooms are rare, as students need to have their jackets and winter hats always with them – they put them on and take them off many times during the study day. Breaks are supposed to be active, full of running, exercising, and playing together.

The quality of Finnish schools is a result of the reform introduced by the government, so teachers elsewhere in the world – where the system seems to overlook the importance of outdoor movement for students’ development – are unlikely to operate for students’ physical activity on the same basis. However, they can take inspiration from Finnish schools. Even during lessons conducted in classrooms, a minimum amount of movement and a few minutes of rest from the lesson content can be provided. For this purpose, the teacher can open the windows and ask the students to stand up, take a few deep breaths and do some simple stretching exercises. This will make the pupils’ brains more oxygenated and their bodies more relaxed. Even very short breaks for relaxation exercises improve the condition of the human body.

Teachers should also be willing to consider which topics from the (overloaded in many countries) core curriculum they can implement outdoors. And that’s regardless of whether they teach math, English, or geography – after all, they all actually teach a holistic, humanistic approach to life, nature, and the other person.