Never Underestimate the Healing Power of Mother Nature
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
This was true nearly 130 years ago, when preservationist John Muir helped to establish the Sierra Club and Yosemite National Park. And it’s probably more true today, when our maxed-out kids toggle between school, screens, homework, and more screens. Here’s the research on nature therapy and ADHD, and ideas for harnessing its power for your family.
ADHD knows no bounds. It profoundly impacts the parenting and coping skills of caregivers. It touches seemingly every aspect of daily life for adults with the condition. But it often lands its most unforgiving punch on our children, who lack the cognitive coping skills to understand themselves as non-neurotypicals moving through a world designed for and run by the neurotypical.
While many children with ADHD benefit from treatment aids — meditation, therapy, drug intervention — these largely require finding doctors and jumping through insurance hoops. With one notable exception: a universally accessible treatment that’s proven to help ADHD, even when used for just 30 minutes after school or over a lunch break. That therapy? Nature.
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The Science of Nature
The idea that nature can help ADHD isn’t airy-fairy, hippie drum circle stuff. In “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” a study published in the journal Psychology Today in 2008, researchers showed that, when participants walked in nature or viewed pictures of it, as opposed to doing the same with an urban environment, their directed-attention abilities improved. Basically, getting out into nature helps you focus more on specific tasks, and this works better than, say, running on a treadmill or playing indoor basketball. Even looking at pictures of nature can help improve focus.
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Nature and the ADHD Brain
The benefits of nature actually may be heightened for children with ADHD. In 2009, the Journal of Attention Disorders published "Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After a Walk.” This study showed that, while neurotypical people absolutely do benefit from a walk in nature, ADHD kids really, really benefit from a walk in nature. Just 20 minutes of walking outside in nature (notably, not in urban settings) resulted in better concentration and “effect sizes were substantial… comparable to those reported for recent formulations of methylphenidate.”
This doesn’t mean you can throw out your Ritalin. But it does mean, as the researchers say, that, “‘Doses of nature’ might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms.”
This nature study cited above wasn’t a lark, either. In 2015, researchers published “The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition,” in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning. They built on the research from Psychology Today, sending participants on one of two walks: a walk through an urban environment, or a walk through nature. The nature walk, compared to the urban walk, resulted in “increased working memory performance.” What’s more, nature walkers showed a drop in “anxiety, rumination, and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect.” With 50% of individuals with ADHD suffering from anxiety, this nature benefit has the potential to significantly impact quality of life for many.
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Nature Improves Mood, Too
Earlier in 2018, the journal of Ecopsychology furthered the idea of a mind-body connection when it published research linking feeling good, energy, and attention to walking outside. In “Walking and Being Outdoors In Nature Increase Positive Affect and Energy,” researchers again affirmed that outdoor walking with exposure to “actual nature” improved “mood, energy, tiredness, and attention” more than did sitting inside, exercising inside, or sitting outside — even when all of these involved actual or simulated exposure to nature.
Simply put, simply sitting outside improves attention and focus more than sitting inside, even if you’re staring at picture of waterfalls while you do it, and also improves mood.
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Students May Learn Better Outside the Classroom
Get this: A child’s cognition and attention will improve just by getting out of a traditional school environment. In “Science Outdoors: Does the Learning Environment Influence Student Interest, Engagement, and Cognition?” researchers from the University of Montana examined whether taking students on at least two field trips and 16 out-of-classroom forays helped improve their interest, engagement, and cognition. Data indicated a strong correlation between improved performance and taking kids outside of the traditional four concrete walls and into nature.
Exploring nature and the outside world helped the study subjects learn by maintaining their interest and engagement — a hearty challenge for any child with ADHD, who — by virtue of his or her brain wiring — tends to have wandering attention.
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Learning Outside May Boost Performance, Motivation
Another study published in Education found that children — especially those with ADHD, when you read between the lines — can benefit greatly from time spent learning outside. In “Learning Arithmetic Outdoors in Junior High School — Influence on Performance and Self-Regulating Skills,” one group of middle school students was taught math indoors, another outside. The kids who learned outside showed better academic performance (which insinuates more attention), while the kids who learned inside showed “a decrease in intrinsic motivation.”
This may not seem like a big deal. But consider that the main motivating factor for many of us with ADHD is an intrinsic factor; one of our primary difficulties is our inability to motivate ourselves by extrinsic factors, like grades or teachers’ goading. If this is the case, we need to get kids with ADHD learning outside as much as possible.
“Findings suggest that everyday play settings made a difference in overall symptom severity of children in children with ADHD.” Basically, kids with regular access to greenspace for play had milder symptoms than did kids who played indoors or in “built outdoor” settings. This was true for both boys and girls, though hyperactive children seemed to benefit from relatively open green spaces for symptom reduction. The bigger the field, the better.
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ADHD Nature Research Dates Back Nearly 20 Years
All of this should be old news to researchers. As far back as 2001, Environment and Behavior was publishing essays on the topic, including one titled, “Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings.” Basically, results were the same as the ones repeated in later studies. Researchers monitored kids; parents were surveyed about their kids’ attention levels after they engaged in activities in different settings. Not-so-shocking, kids did better after time in green settings, and the greener the setting, “the less severe his or her attention deficit symptoms.” As the research found, nature can help kids who “desperately need attentional support.”
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What’s Better Than Nature? Nature with a Dog.
What about “alone time” vs. playing in nature with others? A small study out of Korea, “The Influences of Outdoor Activities with Companion Dogs on the Attention of Children with ADHD,” took kids with ADHD on 90-minute walks with a pup. Researchers measured “selective attention, sustained attention, self-control, short-term memory, auditory attention, and visual attention,” and had parents and teachers fill out both pre- and post-tests. They found the children improved in all quarters except visual attention, and concluded that we should think about using dogs as part of ADHD therapy. As if you needed another good reason why your child take the dog for his daily romp.
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How to Grow Perseverance
One excellent way to keep your child company in nature: Build a garden together! Natasha Etherington wrote a whole book on the subject: Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Needs: Engaging with Nature to Combat Anxiety, Promote Sensory Integration, and Build Social Skills. She argues that spending time in nature, as so many have already said, increases attention and focus. She also says that outside play creates “a curious mind,” and that it promotes perseverance. For kids who may give up on neurotypical tasks that don’t resonate with their ADHD brains, this increased perseverance could be something deeply important. For kids who are ostracized and bullied, joining a garden club or community garden may help build positive experiences with peers and with adults. I’d also argue that kids benefit from seeing the literal fruits of their labor blossom over time — something truly valuable to an individual with ADHD who rarely sees his or her work completed.
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However you do it — a walk, a hike, summer camping trips, run-around time in the yard, or a garden — incorporating green time into your life will benefit your ADHD brain. More than others, we need the benefits that nature promises: quiet, peace, attention and mood boost, improved motivation and perseverance. Nature is not an alternative to medication. But it will probably help it work better. In end, you’ve got nothing to lose — other than your preconceptions and assumptions about alternative therapies for ADHD.