Go Take a Hike! (No, Really, It Helps.)
Studies suggest that time spent in nature can help children with ADHD recharge their attention and focus. Here, find outdoor activities that rejuvenate kids after a long day of sitting still and working hard.
Hoping to try new natural remedies for ADHD? Time spent in natural settings, so-called “green time,” measurably reduces inattentiveness in children with ADHD, researchers are finding.
And many parents agree. Nathan Miller is a typical 11-year-old boy. He plays outside for hours after school pretending he’s Indiana Jones, riding his bicycle, or running around with the other children in his neighborhood. Only when the streetlights come on does Nathan’s mom, Kathleen Miller, call him inside. Miller has no problem with Nathan’s long hours of outdoor play because her son comes home with fewer symptoms. “After being outside, he’s better able to sit and do a task without wandering off or looking out the window,” she says.
Nathan isn’t the only child with ADHD who seems to benefit from time outside. Traci Brown Heyland, from Portland, Oregon, says she also notices that her son, Caleb, 12, is better behaved after being in nature. “Expending energy outside helps him focus better and re-center himself,” she says.
Andrea Faber Taylor, Ph.D., a behavior researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied the link between environment and the mind of a child with ADHD. Citing the work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan from the University of Michigan, Taylor delved into why nature has such a salutary effect on people with ADHD.
There are two types of attention, direct and involuntary, she explains. Direct attention is the forced attention we use every day to focus on housework, to complete homework, or to drive a car. Involuntary attention is effortless. “Some things naturally draw your attention, like a bird building a nest or beautiful foliage,” says Taylor. For those without ADHD, it is easy to use direct attention to complete a particular task. But for those with the condition, direct-attention reserves are smaller, she says, so they get depleted sooner.
“One way to support children with ADHD is to help them recover from that fatigue,” suggests Taylor. For Moms and Dads, that means giving your child a break from attention-demanding tasks and letting her roam outside in natural settings. Time outside may mean a walk through a park, or it can be more structured, such as playing soccer in an open field. Green time is more than just taking a break from work; it’s the setting of that break that makes all the difference.
The Science Behind Nature as an 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 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 ADHD who spent time in the most natural settings displayed less inattentiveness, regardless of whether they had the hyperactive or inattentive type of ADHD.
Benefits of Natural Outdoors vs. Suburban, Urban Settings
Taylor and Kuo conducted another study, in 2008, which showed that children with 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 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 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 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 Students with ADHD?
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.
Outdoor Activities for Children with ADHD
Use free time wisely. Instead of the half-hour video-game break your child normally takes after school, direct her to an activity outside. Remember, don’t force an activity on your child. Find one he loves, and make it part of your family’s routine. Here are some of Andrea Faber Taylor’s greentime suggestions:
• Ride a bike on a breezy day. (See “The Lessons My ADHD Son and I Learned on Our Bike Ride Across Iowa”)
• Join a local sports team. (See “Best and Worst Sports for ADHD”)
• Roam in a wooded area.
• Go fishing.
• Set up a tent in the backyard for a night of camping.
• Jump on a trampoline in the backyard.
• Visit a local park and stare at the clouds.
• Take a hike.
• Set up a bird feeder and watch the birds — from inside or outside.
• Indoors, create natural moments by setting up a tabletop fountain, a fishtank with your favorite fish, or a terrarium, preferably with small pets (hermit crabs or turtles).
• Look for tracks of animals on snowy fields or paths.
• Throw pinecones or rocks on a frozen lake.
• Build a snow fort. (See “ADHD Hyperactivity Help for Indoor-Weather Days.”)
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Updated on June 29, 2020