Outdoor Play Boosts The Immune System and Reduces School Absence Rates
The rate of absence from English schools is on the rise according to the Department for Education.
One suggestion is that it’s because our children’s immune systems are suffering because they don’t get enough time to play outdoors. This leads to more illness and inevitably, some time off school.
The solution? More outdoor play and more outdoor learning during the school day!
It may seem a bold and somewhat sweeping generalisation, but there are, in fact, several scientific reasons explaining how regular, outdoor play, boosts the immune system.
It won’t stop children from catching illnesses altogether - but it can certainly help their bodies to fight off infection and to bounce back quickly when they do fall ill.
1. Vitamin D - the Sunshine Vitamin
Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have discovered that Vitamin D is a crucial vitamin for activating our immune defenses.
Without sufficient intake of Vitamin D, our bodies’ T Cells, which detect and kill dangerous pathogens within the body, can’t react to and fight off serious infections, so we’re more at risk of viral infection. Put simply, we need Vitamin D for our immune systems to function properly.
Vitamin D comes from the sun. It’s something that our bodies produce from direct, outdoor exposure to sunlight. A chemical reaction happens when UVB rays from the sun hit our skin and our bodies begin to convert a prohormone in the skin into Vitamin D.
According to the NHS, from late March to the end of September, most people should be able to get all the Vitamin D they need from sunlight.
Should being the operative word - children need to be allowed and encouraged to go outdoors every day during daylight hours, so their bodies can get producing! The more lessons you can take outdoors, the better.
Think of all those bugs that seem to sweep through school during the winter months - and especially at the start of a new school year when everyone comes back the classroom. It’s no coincidence and it’s not necessarily just about all being confined together.
It’s the fact that everyone is inside, with considerably less exposure to the sun than they have become used to over the summer holidays and their immune systems aren’t getting what they need to function well.
2. Physical Movement
Everyone recognises the obvious physical health benefits of outdoor learning and play for children: it keeps them moving, it’s good exercise and it helps to keep them fit and fight obesity. That’s a given.
But what never really gets talked about, what is often overlooked despite being one of the most important systems in our bodies, is the lymphatic system.
When children are playing and learning outside, they are naturally moving around much more than when they’re inside the classroom. There’s more space to move and to make bigger movements. This movement is what gets their lymphatic systems pumping, which in turn, gives their immune systems a real boost.
The lymphatic system is the body’s own waste removal service. It’s a major component of the circulatory system (twice the size of the arterial system!), which transports and gets rid of lymphatic waste and other fluids.
It’s main job is all about the immune system: it makes lymphocytes - white blood cells which travel around the body to fight off disease and infection.
But unlike the arterial system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a heart to pump fluid around the body. For that, it relies on movement and activity from us, otherwise viruses would just be allowed to hang around inside the body making us ill.
Encouraging children to be active, outdoors, every day will make sure that their lymphatic systems get a good work-out too - fighting off the bugs and keeping them fit for learning!
3. Dirt and Grime are Never a Crime!
Perish the thought, but it’s a fact that one small, unassuming mud pie, will have somewhere around 4 billion tiny little creatures living inside it - just going about their business, happily out of sight and mind of the pie-maker.
Before you shudder and reach for the hand wipes - this is a good thing! Children need to be exposed to different kinds of bacteria and microorganisms to help build up their immune systems, which need exercise just like any other part of the body.
If they don’t get used to this sort of messy, outdoor play from a young age, they’ll struggle to build up the resistance to bugs that they need to help keep them fit and healthy.
And if a child just so happens to put their dirty fingers in their mouth after they’ve made their mud pie (show me a child who has never done that before!), well, that’s not the end of the world either. As Dr Mary Ruebush PhD, a world renowned expert in Microbiology and Immunology, says:
“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth, is allowing his immune response to explore his environment. Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”
So there you have it: quite literally, mucking about outdoors is an important part of the school day for young children, as good for their health as it is for their learning.
4. Stamp Out Stress
When children play outside, they are less stressed. A quick internet search will point you in the direction of numerous studies, research and evidence based reports on this subject - and you can read more information about the importance of outdoor play in safeguarding children’s mental health and wellbeing here in our Edu-Blog.
When we experience stress, we experience all sorts of negative symptoms. Inability to relax, to rest and sleep properly, to eat well and to take in proper nutrients, all have a knock-on effect on our body’s immune system, which needs all of those things to function properly.
For children as much as adults, this can lead to them becoming physically unwell and showing more physical signs of stress in addition to the damaging effects it has on their mental health.
Taking children outside to play on a regular basis, in addition to whatever support they are receiving to manage the source, will help to combat, or at least significantly reduce, any stress that they might be experiencing in their lives. And that’s good news for their immune systems and their general wellbeing.
If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration to improve your outdoor provision for daily, year-round outdoor play and learning at your school or nursery - we can help.
We design, make and install outstanding playground products for outdoor learning, play and sports - and we can help you to create your perfect outdoor space within your budget. We offer a free, no-obligation playground consultation. For more information please do give us a call, or Contact Us via our website and we’ll call you at a time to suit you.
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