Existing evidence shows that doing activities outdoors can be good for our wellbeing. It can make us feel happier, and more satisfied with life, or less anxious and depressed. However, most of the evidence is about the individual wellbeing of adults, a small amount is about the wellbeing of children and very little is about adults and children together in families.
The review this briefing is based on examines whether taking part in physical activity outdoors, with family, affects our subjective wellbeing. By subjective wellbeing we mean the good and bad feelings arising from what we do and how we think.
We sifted through 135 studies
The review looked at studies published between 1998-2018, as well as unpublished reports produced by, or for, organisations about the wellbeing benefits of outdoor activity since 2013.
In addition, we carried out some detailed analysis of survey data to understand how spending time outdoors with different people, friends and family, affects our wellbeing.
What are the key findings?
Analysis of survey data shows that people’s enjoyment of the outdoors is enhanced when they are spending time with family and friends, and in particular with partners.
The analysis is based on two Time Use Surveys, one from the UK and one from the US, which collect data on people’s daily experiences. Both datasets contain information on what people do throughout the day, where, and with whom. In the UK people were asked how much they enjoyed a specific activity and spending time outdoors was found to have a positive effect on their enjoyment. Analysis was also conducted to understand the effects of who they were with and it found that people enjoy spending time with both family and friends, more than spending time alone. When analysing these factors in conjunction, the effect of spending time with family outdoors was simply the sum of the two individual effects. This was more than the combined effect of spending time with friends outdoors. This applied to all types of outdoor activities,2 except socialising, where the positive effect was higher with friends. This means that on average, UK residents in the sample, reported enjoying their time outdoors with relatives more than with friends. Within the family, partners had the largest rise in enjoyment in comparison with children and parents. In the US people were asked about their happiness, stress and meaning during an activity. The US data finds that being outdoors3 is enhanced when spending time with friends and family. In specific, people are happiest when outdoors with their partners. This is because there is an additional benefit over and above the two independent effects of spending time outdoors and spending time with partners.
This research identifies correlations, but not causation. More research is needed to help us to understand the causal links and the effects of different activities, different family members in more detail, for example siblings, grandparents and so on.
Where you see the following symbols it indicates:
strongWe can be confident that the evidence can be used to inform decisions.
promisingWe have moderate confidence. Decision makers may wish to incorporate further information to inform decisions.
initialWe have low confidence. Decision makers may wish to incorporate further information to inform decisions.
Our systematic review1 of the evidence found that overall the evidence base was quite limited in terms of number of studies and quality, especially when looking at quantitative studies.
Taking part in outdoor recreation with families has no significant effect on children’s quality of life.
Taking part in outdoor recreation with families has no significant effect on self-esteem and other measures of psychological wellbeing.
Taking part in outdoor recreation with families improves self-competence learning and identity through family connection to nature.
Taking part in outdoor recreation with families improves wellbeing via escapism, relaxation and sensory experience.
Why should you care?
1. The evidence points to a positive link between participation in outdoor activities with family and friends and wellbeing.
There is a case for promoting outdoor recreation, especially as a family-orientated activity at a national level. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions given the limited amount of evidence and its low quality.
2. Build the evidence base for wellbeing in the outdoors.
There is scope to build evidence on wellbeing outcomes of outdoor recreation for families who take part through well-designed, rigorous and appropriate research methods which are underpinned by relevant theory and use established methods of analysis.
This will help practitioners, local authorities, commissioners and policy makers to understand what works and in which conditions.
3. Measure what matters through quality evaluation. How?
Should have a key role in promoting agreement on definitions and developing relevant measures of wellbeing outcomes at a national level. This consistent use of wellbeing outcomes as an evaluator will allow for comparisons across the different activities in this area of interest.
They should also promote the development of a programme of wellbeing evaluation training. This would be highly useful to support service providers and key stakeholders in the outdoor recreation sectors. It would eventually ensure that a comprehensive
programme of delivery includes appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation.
Need to develop appropriate evaluations to understand what works and further enrich the evidence base. Evaluations need to be appropriate for the purpose of the research and size of the programme, of enough quality to draw conclusions. We’ve developed a guide that might help you measure wellbeing and wider impact of your programmes on the people and communities you support, check it out here
4. Promote access and tailor it to the local context
Local authorities and national agencies should promote wide access and opportunities for family to participate in outdoor recreation. Working with informal and formal parent networks may provide opportunities to reach and engage families in outdoor activities. Providing peer support, professional support, a personalised/tailored approach that is community focused and locally available increases the opportunity to have an impact.
What can you do next?
If you’ve done an evaluation of wellbeing in outdoor recreation and you’ve used our guide please get in touch with: email@example.com