The dictionary defines an adventure as “a risky undertaking with an unknown outcome.” No wonder so many cautious parents shy away from suggesting their kids go on one. But an exciting escapade may be just what our children need, a study shows. It offers important mental health benefits, and its emotional perks turn out to be even greater among kids from lower income families.

A team of researchers, from the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health (CMH) in the United Kingdom, surveyed the parents of kids aged five to 11- years old. Included in their sample were 427 parents from Northern Ireland, and a representative group of over 1,900 parents from England, Wales and Scotland.

Parents answered questions about how and how much their child played, and about their children’s mental health before the pandemic and their mood during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

“…[P]lay is free, instinctive and rewarding for children, available to everyone, and doesn’t require special skills.”

Kids who spent more time playing outside and enjoying adventurous activities had fewer bouts of “internalizing problems” such as anxiety and depression, the study found. Generally, kids who played outdoors were also in a more positive mood during the first lockdown than those kids glued to their screens.

Today’s parents aren’t so keen on giving kids a longer rein. Elementary school-aged children are often not allowed to play freely outside on their own until they are two years older than was the case for their parents' generation. Moms and dads of children today were around the age of nine when they were permitted to play unsupervised outside, their offspring are more likely to be eleven.

According to this study, it may be a good time for parents to loosen their grip.

“We’re more concerned than ever about children’s mental health, and our findings highlight that we might be able to help protect children’s mental health by ensuring they have plentiful opportunities for outdoor adventurous play,” Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter and leader of the study, said In a press statement.

Looking for some adventure-filled activities to safely challenge and expand your kids? Consider these:

  • Walk in the dark outside with flashlights
  • Explore the woods with friends
  • Camp out overnight — even in the backyard
  • Climb a mountain or a local hill
  • Try out a new skill such as skateboarding, roller skating — or biking
  • Create an obstacle course outside, or even inside, your home
  • Go swimming or paddling on a river or lake.

These activities are not only generally free of charge, they also engage kids’ bodies, minds and imaginations. “This is really positive because play is free, instinctive and rewarding for children, available to everyone, and doesn’t require special skills,” Dodd said. “We now urgently need to invest in and protect natural spaces, well-designed parks and adventure playgrounds, to support the mental health of our children.”

So, get those kids off their screens and offer them a real-life adventure!

The study is published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development.