The Science Behind Nature as an ADD/ADHD Remedy
For a study published in 2004 in American Journal of Public Health, Taylor and her colleague, Frances E. Kuo, Ph.D., surveyed over 400 families in the United States, each of which had at least one child with ADD/ADHD. Parents answered questions about their child’s behavior before and after participating in various activities in environments ranging from indoors to a cement-covered park to natural, wild areas. The results of the survey indicated that the children with ADD/ADHD who spent time in the most natural settings displayed less inattentiveness, regardless of whether they had the hyperactive or inattentive type of ADD/ADHD.
Benefits of Natural Outdoors vs. Suburban, Urban Settings
Taylor and Kuo conducted another study, in 2008, which showed that children with ADD/ADHD demonstrated greater attention after a 20-minute walk in a park than after a similar walk in a downtown area or a residential neighborhood.
“From our previous research, we knew there might be a link between spending time in nature and reduced ADD/ADHD symptoms,” says Taylor. “So, to confirm that link, we conducted a study in which we took children on walks in three different settings -- one especially ‘green’ and two less ‘green’ -- and kept everything about the walks as similar as possible.”
Some children took the “green” walk first; others took it second or last. After each walk, a researcher, who didn’t know which walk the child had been on, tested their attention, using a standard neurocognitive test called Backward Digit Span, in which a series of numbers is said aloud and the child recites them backward. It’s a test in which practice doesn’t improve your score.
“We compared each child’s performance to his performance after different walks,” reports Taylor. “We found that, after the walk in the park, children generally concentrated better than they did after a walk in the downtown area or the neighborhood area. The greenest space was best at improving attention after exposure.”
When they see behavioral improvements in their kids after playing outside, many parents assume that their children are benefiting from “blowing off steam” or using up excess energy. However, the survey indicated that it’s not so simple. The results showed that there was no improvement in a child’s ADD/ADHD symptoms after playing indoors or in a constructed outdoor setting, such as a cement-filled playground or skate park.
The children who had access to open fields, wooded areas, or other natural environments seemed to have the greatest reduction in symptoms. Green time can easily be tried in conjunction with traditional medications or other alternative therapies. The side effects may be a few scrapes, bruises, or bug bites. And even if you live in the city, there are ways to incorporate green time into your child’s life.
“Anything outdoors is better than anything indoors,” says Taylor, “but it’s not enough to say, ‘Go play outside.’ Parents need to go outside, too, to show children how to enjoy nature. Point out details upclose, and comment on sounds, patterns, and phenomena. As children become familiar with their nearby natural areas, they will want to go back on their own.”
Do Adults Benefit from Outdoor Access?
While her study did not include adults, Taylor theorizes that time in nature is helpful for adults with ADD/ADHD, too. “Everyone needs to do something restorative,” she says. Have you ever felt the need to take in some fresh air when you got stuck on a project? The whole family can benefit from a group outing or walk outside. “It’s probably not a coincidence that adults seem to take vacations in natural settings,” adds Taylor.
How Can Natural Access Benefit ADHD Students?
Green time should also be a key part of your child’s school day -- Kathleen Miller understands this all too well. Nathan’s teacher continuously reported to her that Nathan had a hard time behaving on the days when his recess was taken away as a punishment.
“I remember chuckling and thinking, ‘Who is he punishing, my child or himself?’” says Miller.