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Get Out There: The Great Outdoors Guide to Happier Kids with ADHD

A guide for parents – from an ADHD mom – on how to make the most of outdoor exercise as a natural remedy for kids’ symptoms.

My five-year-old needs two hours of outdoor time a day. It controls his meltdowns, helps his attention, and keeps him more focused. It also keeps me focused and attentive, better able to cope with the daily grind of actual adulthood-things like paying bills and remembering to do the laundry. I need all the help I can get in that department.

Science has shown that vigorous exercise does a good job of controlling ADHD symptoms. The greener the space, the more attention and focus improve. So it’s important to us to get outside and run around as much as possible. But two hours is a hell of a lot of time.

For us, it means we spend a lot of time mucking around in the woods. Five-year-old Falcon doesn’t yet have the sustained attention for organized sports, and if he did, those types of activities would leave me out of the equation, anyway. So we get out and hike. We walk. We play in creeks. I turn the kids out in the backyard and pray no one calls DSS when I run inside to pee. We’ve learned a lot in our time mucking about.

Before You Go Mucking

Bring fuel. You will get thirsty, and you will get hungry, even if you just ate a seven-course meal. This might not be true for you, but it’s certainly true for the Energizer Bunny you gave birth to. Pack water bottles and snacks. You’ll need them. Remember to bring a better-prepared friend.

Bug spray = no mosquito bites. Forget the organic stuff made of good wishes and hippie fart. You probably need DEET. Otherwise, the mosquitoes will have you for breakfast. Spray it into your hand and rub it on the kids rather than mist them with a cloud of deadly chemicals. It might not be less deadly, but it’ll make you feel better. Hope that friend brought the DEET, too.

[Free Guide: Great Sports and Activities for Kids with ADHD]

Sunscreen yourself. You need plenty of vitamin D. You also need an outer layer of epidermis. Don’t be a martyr, and don’t forget your ears. Handy tip: Put on the sunscreen, let it dry for 15 minutes, and then DEET yourself. This is way too complicated, and if you accomplish it, you get the ADHD Parent Medal of the Year.

Dress for success. Success, in this case, means a giant mess. Expect dirt. Expect to walk a lot farther than you thought, so leave the flip-flops at home. If there’s water nearby, your children will fling themselves into it, so bring play clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting waterlogged. Plan for a bath at the end of it all. The color of the water will disgust you.

Pee beforehand. You really don’t want to neglect this step. Boys can pee on trees, but do you really want to start (continue) that trend?

While You’re Mucking

Keep expectations to a minimum. Sure, you want to hike all the way to the bridge. But there was a lovely field to run in, and some bugs to look at, and you made it only halfway before you knew the kids-and you-would poop out if you went any further. Don’t let being wedded to goals keep you from enjoying the journey along the way.

Sticks and stones won’t break your bones. As long as the kids don’t beat each other with them, that is. Beating stuff is a natural impulse that your child will find hard to suppress, as is the urge to fling rocks at his brother. Let them throw rocks into creeks instead, and hit sticks against trees. You might want to pick up a poking stick of your own. Just remember the cardinal rules- not in the face, not toward the body, and not at an animal (unless it’s already dead).

Don’t be scared of the dark. My kids love what they call “river night walks,” when we hit our local walking trail after dusk, flashlights in tow, and see what nature we can find (usually toads and beetles). This is a great chance for families who may be pressed for time to get into the great outdoors. As long as you’re in a safe location, there’s no reason not to walk in dark.

Don’t be scared of creepy-crawlies, either. It teaches your kids to feel the same way. Spiders, lizards, toads, and beetles are some of the most approachable wildlife around, and kids get excited finding and watching them. Treat everything as worthy of your notice, and watch your kids learn to do the same.

Expect requests for souvenirs. Your kids will just have to take that special stick home, or carry those rocks back in their pockets. We have a rule: Nature stays in nature. Sticks do not get to come into the car. Neither do any creepy-crawlies they find along the way. Remember: Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

[Exercise and the ADHD Brain: The Neuroscience of Movement]

After You’ve Mucked Around

Check for ticks. This isn’t a euphemism for kinky outdoorsy activities. Seriously, check yourself and your kids for ticks after each hike. I know that it’s hard to remember. But it’s also hard to get over a case of Lyme disease.

Trash bags make handy car-seat covers. Just strip the kids down to their undies and put the trash bag/target bag/whatever else you had handy in the car seat before them. This keeps the seat from getting covered in mud and sundry substances.