Often during the lazy days of summer, parents of children with ADHD will comment about "the good old days," when moms and dads could happily say to their children, "Go outside and play."
With changes in society, and greater awareness surrounding safety issues, summer frolic has given way to infinite structure. Instead of random playtime, our kids attend camps, swimming lessons, and community center classes. But there are times—especially with younger children—when free play is warranted. And that's an ideal time to round up your kids and head to the playground.
When it comes to unstructured play, I tell parents to consider an environment's safety factors even before considering the social complications that come with ADHD. Generally, playgrounds are safe environments. They sit away from busy streets and offer kids the opportunity to play with others. For kids with ADHD, they're especially beneficial: The swings, monkey bars, and jungle gym help children improve coordination and maximize flexibility. And as we all know, all that activity brings better sleep. An added bonus: Children are in a perfect environment to practice their interpersonal skills—taking turns, problem-solving, thinking for themselves, and respecting other children's space.
But kids with ADHD also face obstacles. Many are socially immature, which, on the playground, translates to easily hurt feelings, tantrums, aggressive behavior, and disobedience. Yet these potential situations needn't keep your child off the swings. Parents I work with recommend these easy playground practices for kids with ADHD.
Go over the rules. Remind your child about what you consider appropriate play. Be specific. "Walk in front of the swings, not in back." Children with ADHD often determine rules by testing things out, so explain the rules up front.
Bring a playmate. Taking a friend who plays well with your child can put a child with ADHD at ease and help him have more fun. Bring another parent along, and you'll have extra supervision.
Be ready to switch gears. For example, if your child is impulsive and impatient, waiting on a crowded line for the slide may trigger a tantrum. Clue in to this before there's a problem, and suggest a detour to the swings.
Prepare for departure. Kids with ADHD often have difficulty transitioning to new tasks, including going home. So before you arrive, tell your child when you expect to leave. A few minutes before leaving time, warn your child that it's almost time to head home.
Offer an incentive. Announce a fun activity that will happen when you get home. One mom, who is great at rounding up her troops, saves a cartoon video for coming-home times only.
Be positive. Say, "Wait your turn," instead of, "Don't push." It's easier for an ADHD child to practice a new, desired behavior than to stop practicing an undesired one.
Talk about tantrums. Warn your child about the consequences of throwing tantrums at the playground. You might say, "If it becomes too hard to stay calm, we'll have to go home."
Praise good behavior. Tell your child that you were proud to see her wait her turn for the slide. Children benefit from positive comments—not false flattery.
Go at peak times. Consider the time of day when your child is most attentive and in the best mood, and plan your trip for then. At her peak times, she's better able to listen, handle stress, follow directions, and enjoy herself.
Leave while it's still fun. Some parents are so delighted to see their child having fun that they let the fun go on too long. When the child tires—and he will—tantrums kick in.