Sports & Activities

Let the Games Begin

Outdoor activity ideas that will help your child with ADHD build skills during the summer vacation.

Child with ADHD playing on a balance board in the summertime
Child with ADHD playing on a balance board in the summertime

After the school year ended, Josh, a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) announced he was bored (already!) and asked his mom, “So what’re we doing today?”

Mom’s solution? Create a safe playground in the backyard, where her hyperactive child could exercise with playmates.

They had their best summer ever: Mom didn’t have to think of something new to do each day, and her ADHD child made friends and slept better at night.

The “Work” of Play

Play is important “work” for children, especially for those with ADHD. It strengthens muscles, improves stamina, and sharpens coordination, and it provides a host of mental and social benefits.

Games, sports, and make-believe encourage a child to feel and express emotion, and to develop skills, like getting along with others and problem-solving, that are essential in school and at home.

[“The Best Summer Is a Strategized Summer”]

Studies also show that kids with ADHD who spend time outdoors in a green setting – a tree-lined street, park, or grassy backyard – feel calmer and more focused than those who spend hours at the computer or on an asphalt playground.

If you’re looking for age-appropriate play ideas for your active child or young teen this summer, here are a few that will raise the fun quotient while providing some other important benefits.

The Young ADHD Child

A hyperactive child needs two things for productive playtime: enough space to tumble, explore, run, jump, and burn up his energy and a physical barrier to keep his curiosity and fearlessness from getting him in trouble or danger. A fenced-in yard or playground fills the bill.

Fun options for your backyard include creating a cave or tunnel by draping sheets over large cardboard boxes, chairs, or a card table. One boy I worked with became so enamored of his make-believe cave that he played happily through the summer, by himself and with playmates, without direction from his parents.

Playing follow-the-leader is also a winner. When you’re the leader, include skipping, jumping, crawling, twirling around, tunneling under a picnic table, and hopping on one foot in your routine, so that your child exercises different muscles.

At the playground, try a game of tag or a stint on the slide and swings. In the park, add interest to a long walk by asking your child to count trees, bushes, and dandelions along the way.

[Free Download: Choosing the Perfect Camp for Your Child]

Younger children often have difficulties with sensory-motor function. One way to sharpen this skill set is by exercising their equilibrium with an easy-to-make balance board. Place a piece of wood-at least 1 1/2 inches thick and about two-feet long-on top of an empty plastic bleach bottle or another cylindrical object. Ask your child to balance himself by placing a foot at each end of the board. This game is sure to elicit hoots and hollers.

The School-Age ADHD Child

Playtime possibilities should include outdoor toys, using equipment that is durable, safe, and inexpensive. Buy items that a child can throw, fling, or glide. Balsa wood airplanes, plastic discs, and hollow plastic baseballs and footballs are fun for children of this age, and will minimize the risk of injuries.

If your child is looking for something more rough and tumble, hang an inflated inner tube or stuffed duffel bag on an outdoor wall, and let him pummel it with fist and foot until he’s tuckered out.

A game of hopscotch or basketball (with the hoop and backboard set at the right height) is entertaining, and either develops hand-eye coordination.

Water play invites endless variations to keep boredom at bay. Running through a sprinkler or squirting a hose at friends on hot days is a perennial source of fun. Water fights with squirt guns will satisfy a hyperactive or impulsive child’s need for excitement.

For Young ADHD Teens

While some hyperactive teens thrive in team sports, others prefer solo activities, like running, swimming, rollerblading, hiking, strength training, or mastering the climbing wall. Individual sports are free of teammates to disappoint, and there are no opponents to become angry at or to feel inferior to.

Jerry is a hyperactive 14-year-old who lacked the coordination and team skills needed for basketball and baseball. His parents suggested he try long-distance bicycling as part of a large group. He enjoyed the rapid movement, the novelty of riding to new places, and the energy of being with others. His self-esteem got a boost when he won an award for completing an extended bike tour to neighboring states.

If you have the room and an available tree, build a tree house together. It gives your teen a sense of accomplishment, as he learns to use tools and sees the structure take shape, board by board. You can help draft the plan, select the wood, and supervise the project, but make it a joint effort.

The finished product will provide endless hours of entertainment, and will be a proud reminder of skills learned for many years to come.

[Special ADDitude Collection: Summer Learning Ideas for Kids with ADHD]