For Children’s Mental Health Week Dr Kristy Howells explains how physical activity should be seen as key to supporting good mental health in young people.

It’s Children’s Mental Health Week (4 – 10 February 2019) and the focus is on children being ‘Healthy: Inside and Out’. Some may question why we need such a week, but according to the OECD (2016) there are worrying statistics about how early mental illness starts with children.  This is illustrated with the recent reports in the England, (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), stating there was a rise of 5183 referrals (from 2014 – 2019) for specialist mental health for children under 11, and that the youngest referral was 3 years of age!

For good mental wellbeing, schools have been identified as a key place within a children and young person’s life to help support them. Within a school setting physical activity and exercise can be key way to help children cope with daily worries.

The Mental Health Foundation (2013) promotes participation in physical activity as they suggest it can help increase self-esteem levels. Howells and Bowen (2016) identified that physical activity can have life changing impacts improving mental wellbeing of children, who participated in a five month physical activity intervention programme, whilst Bailey, Howells and Gilbo (2018) proposed that physical activity within a school setting can help play an important role in protecting young children from mental illness. It is especially valuable for girls in combating mild to moderate depressive symptoms and that physical activities interventions have the potential to save lives through helping to reduce feelings of hopelessness, suicide and self-harm.

The role of education is to prepare children for uncertain futures, building resilience in order to fulfil their potential, with regular physical activity making such major contributions to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in children.  We need to empower and encourage schools to include daily physical activities to help promote positive mental health, throughout children’s mental health week and beyond so physical activity becomes a way of life that can help support our children be healthy both inside and out.


Dr Kristy Howells is Reader and Director of Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education.