Get That Green Time In!

Summer can mean getting outside to spend time in the park, hike through the woods, or explore the wilds of your backyard. For children with ADHD, there can be additional benefits to enjoying nature.

A growing body of research indicates that children and adults who spend time in nature increase their ability to pay attention and lower their levels of stress and anxiety. Researchers are specifically interested in how green time–spending time in a natural setting—can benefit children with an ADHD diagnosis.

The Children & Nature Network, which encourages time spent outdoors in green settings, states that the recent closing of school campuses due to the pandemic and the gradual reopening this school year provide a unique opportunity for communities to consider green time for students. Creating outdoor learning centers and green schoolyards can help meet student needs for exercise, stress reduction, and physical distancing.

The benefits of getting outside

Spending time outside has clear benefits for mental and physical health for everyone. Researchers suggest that time in a natural, non-urban setting is restorative to both the human body and brain. This allows people to escape from stressful demands for their attention, such as watching the movement of cars while crossing the street, and instead pay attention to less task-oriented, more intriguing aspects of nature―the sights, sounds, smells, and dynamics therein.

“Studies show that exploring, playing, and learning in nature improves academic achievement more than indoor classroom instruction,” write Sarah Milligan-Toffler and Richard Louv for Children & Nature Network. “In a brief integrative review of the research [researchers] found that positive shifts occur in perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience—skills that are essential in overcoming the unprecedented challenges we face today.”

Going green for ADHD

Children with ADHD experience challenges in attention, the ability to remain focused on a task, short-term memory, or the ability to sit still; they often have behavioral issues stemming from those challenges. Two University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers, Frances E. Kuo, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, surveyed children with ADHD nationwide who participated in various after-school and weekend activities with the goal of understanding how outdoor activities could affect their ADHD symptoms.

The children who participated in outdoor activities, spending structured and unstructured time in nature, appeared to experience a reduction in their ADHD symptoms.

“We were confident that acute exposures to nature—sort of one-time doses—have short-term impacts on ADHD symptoms,” Dr. Kuo says. “The question is, if you’re getting chronic exposure, but it’s the same old stuff because it’s in your backyard or it’s the playground at your school, then does that help?”

Examining the information they collected, Dr. Kuo and Dr. Taylor saw the answer to their question: Whether it was a backyard, a school playground, a city park, or a stand of trees in the neighborhood, there were improvements in symptoms and behavior after children had green time.

“On the whole, the green settings were related to milder overall symptoms than either the [control settings of the] ‘built outdoors’ or ‘indoors’ settings,” Dr. Taylor says.

Rachel Kaplan, PhD, and Stephen Kaplan, PhD, study nature’s effect on people and have seen that exposure to a natural environment—even if it’s at a desk facing a window—helps improve attention and mental health. They describe two types of attention, directed or task-driven, and fascination. Too much directed attention can lead to attention fatigue, they argue, and results in impulsivity and distractibility. Being in nature, these researchers believe, allows a shift to fascination and can allow people to recover from situational inattention and impulsivity (not necessarily ADHD-related).

“Directed attention fatigues people through overuse,” says Dr. Stephen Kaplan. “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic [i.e., the environment intrigues you without expectation], you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination.” That environment, they say, is a natural and green one.

Health benefits of nature for everyone

The health benefits of spending time outside include:

  • Improvements to short-term memory
  • Reduced stress levels and lower levels of stress hormones that affect heart health and weight
  • Improvement in eyesight (mostly among children)
  • Improved immune function
  • Improvements to mental health and decreased risks for depression and anxiety
  • Increased natural Vitamin D production, which is linked to improved health outcomes

How does spending time in natural settings improve health? Ming Kuo with the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reviewed available research on the health effects of being closer to nature. She identified 21 pathways in the human body or brain that could be influenced by nature and had implications for special health outcomes—ways of being in nature that positively affect a person’s health.

One set of pathways she discusses are the environmental conditions—the air processed by the plants, and microcompounds from the water and soil that are available in the air. These include phytoncides—antimicrobial volatile organic compounds released by plants, which reduce blood pressure, alter autonomic activity, and boost immune functioning. Also included are negative air ions, which are higher in forested environments. Negative ions may have the effect of helping to decrease symptoms of depression. The sights and sounds of a natural environment may also have an effect, since they help to reduce anxiety, stress, and inattention. Research also shows that healing following surgery improves when a person experiences a more natural environment.

Ms. Kuo’s research also showed an improvement in immune function and an increase in healthy gut flora, both of which improve general health and may have a relationship to improved mental health.

Getting more green time this summer

Summer, with its change of pace from the school year, is ideal for spending more time outside. Children can spend more time outside in structured and unstructured activities. Families can use this time of year to spend time together at parks, in the backyard, and at local community activities.

Here are some ways families can spend more time outside:

  • Create scavenger hunts for your children.
  • Take hikes and have picnics at nearby state and county parks.
  • Go camping as a family. Many state parks have tent sites that can be booked on short notice.
  • Pick up books on local trees, birds, and plants at your local library. Use those books to explore your backyard and identify the wildlife you find there.
  • Take evening walks together at neighborhood parks.

Looking for more ideas?

Join the discussion: How are you planning to spend more time outside as a family this summer?