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7 ways to improve pupil mental health through physical activity

7 ways to improve pupil mental health through physical activity

In the UK, the mental health of children and young people is a growing concern. A staggering 1 in 6 children between the ages of 5-16 are likely to have a mental health disorder. This has increased by 50% in the last three years alone.

The benefits physical activity has on mental health are well-known. Even a small amount of exercise can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety as well as improve overall mood, energy levels, sleep and self-esteem.

So, why are only 47% of children meeting their daily recommended movement when we know there are increasing mental health concerns in schools?

 This article shares seven ways to improve pupil mental health through physical activity- and, of course, some simple ideas to get children moving.


What are the benefits of physical activity on mental health for children?

Mental health and physical activity are closely linked, the benefits movement has on brain function, happiness and social development can’t be underestimated.


Physical benefits of movement for children

  • Weight management
  • Improve sleep
  • Help concentration
  • Strengthen muscles and bones
  • Heart health


Emotional benefits of physical activity

  • Increased happiness (through endorphin release)
  • Reduce stress levels
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Reduce feelings of depression and anxiety


Social benefits of exercise for children

  • Build friendships
  • Learn social skills
  • Strengthen skills
  • Widen friendship circle
  • Positive peer pressure


How to improve mental health in schools

Improving pupil mental health will likely be high on your school’s priorities. There are many ways you can help to improve mental health in your setting, let’s explore some of the common, and not-so-common ways schools are boosting pupil mental health.


Increase opportunities to be active in school

Active classrooms are increasing in popularity, our installation team have seen a significant increase in outdoor learning spaces and equipment for primary and secondary schools in 2023 and 2024 so far. It may help to look at a child’s typical day and highlight all the active opportunities, some schools encourage the children to complete the Daily Mile to get their steps in.

Get creative with your active play opportunities

Physical activity is more than just ring-fenced to traditional playground sports like football.


Physical exercise is when a movement that requires energy expenditure is undertaken. You can have moderate or vigorous intensity, which should vary depending on the age and strength of the child.


Here are some physical activity opportunities for children you may not have considered as exercise:

  • Completing the monkey bars
  • Rock climbing
  • Balancing on development blocks
  • Dancing
  • Skipping


Learn about mental health

All children will be aware of steps to take to improve physical health (like eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep). Are your children all aware of how to spot signs of poor mental health and how to look after themselves emotionally?

Continue your PSHE learning about mental health on the playground. Give the children fun opportunities to self-regulate, build strength, and release those endorphins.

Playtime by Fawn’s equipment to encourage physical activity

Here are some of our most popular equipment to help promote physical activity with the reluctant movers.

  1. Pick up sticks
  2. Low-level trim trails
  3. EYFS development blocks
  4. Sensory swing
  5. Performance stage and outdoor classrooms


7 ways to improve mental health through physical activity

Now we’ve covered improving mental health awareness in your school, it’s time to look at how we can combine the two- mental health and physical activity to make a real difference.

1. Weight management

Did you know 1 in 5 children are entering reception either overweight or obese? And these figures don’t improve throughout primary school, with 1 in 3 children leaving primary school overweight or obese. Impacting children’s energy levels and self-esteem, increasing your physical activity provision in your school can help with weight management.

2. Improve pupil sleep

Sleep disorders can often be missed in children, linked to anxiety and other neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD. Depending on age, children and teenagers should get between 8-13 hours of good sleep a night. Engaging in physical activity throughout the school day helps pupils sleep better as their bodies are tired and ready to rest after a busy, active day.

3. Reduce stress levels

Let’s look at some science…Exercise reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline whilst boosting natural mood-lifter hormones like endorphins. Movement helps blood to flow around the body, making neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin function well, these all help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

4. Emotional regulation

There are lots of different ways you can use physical activity to improve pupils’ mental health, activities that promote emotional regulation are a great way to do this. Heavy work and sensory circuits help to regulate by providing sensory feedback some children seek. Look at how you can help children regulate their emotions by creatively using your outdoor playground equipment during brain breaks.

5. Build friendships

We are social beings, and making and keeping friendships is an important part of the school. Children who lack a secure friendship group and support network can struggle with their mental health. Giving children opportunities to build on vital skills like turn-taking and sharing through play can be the starting point for making friends.

6. Increase self-esteem

Positive peer pressure from teammates can help push children out of their comfort zone within sports. Children who experience trauma and have attachment disorders often feel like they don’t belong. Being a part of a sports team helps children feel as though they belong, working to improve their self-esteem with exercise as the vehicle.

7. Promote goal setting

Working hard to achieve personal or team goals is a given with most traditional sports teams. Promoting exercise in schools can help children set and achieve goals, build self-belief, and provide strategies for boosting resilience and determination against challenges.

How can Playtime by Fawns help?

Our playground experts have over 30 years of experience consulting, designing, and installing outdoor playground equipment. We work with all types of schools to make the most of their playground, regardless of size and budget, we can help.

Want to add more physical activity opportunities to your playground space? Contact our friendly sales team to organise your free design consultation.


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Getting active: small playground game ideas

Making the most of playtime: How to engage SEND children in outdoor play

Who is the winner? The top 10 inclusive playground equipment pieces