Spend Time Outside to Improve ADHD Symptoms

 ADHD Weekly 2017-06-22

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Summer is a good time for your child to get outside and spend time in the park, hiking through the woods or exploring the wilds of your backyard. For children affected by ADHD, there can be additional benefits to spending time in nature.

A growing body of research is indicating that children and adults who spend time in nature increase their ability to pay attention and have lower 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 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 to prevent being hit while crossing the street, and instead pay attention to less task-oriented and intriguing aspects of nature–the sights, sounds, smells, and dynamics therein.

Going green for ADHD

Children affected by ADHD experience challenges with attention, the ability to remain focused on a task, short-term memory, display hyperactivity; 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 have an effect on their ADHD symptoms.

They found the children who participated in outdoor activities, who spent structured and unstructured time in nature, appeared to have 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 affect 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. The researchers 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, they 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," Dr. Stephen Kaplan says. "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 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

Additional health benefits include those that come from increased physical exercise, including improved heart health, a healthy body weight, and physical brain health.

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 affects 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 Ms. Kuo 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 air icons, which are higher in forested environments. Negative ions may have the effect of helping to decrease symptoms of depression. The sights and sounds of being in a natural environmental may also have an effect, since they help to reduce anxiety, stress, and inattention. Research, according to Ms. Kuo, also shows that healing following surgery improves when a person can experience a more natural environment.

The research reviewed by Ms. Kuo 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.

Suggestions for getting more green time

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.

More time outside for your children:

  • Sign children up for day camps and overnight camps. The American Camp Association has tools to help you find a summer camp for your child with ADHD, learning disabilities, and other special needs.
  • Look into town and county park departments for local summer activities and field trips
  • Have children spend time outside during quiet times of the day, perhaps reading or doing crafts 
  • Encourage children to plan their own backyard picnics
  • Collect sports equipment for your children to play pick-up games of baseball, basketball or grass hockey

More time outside as a family:

  • Plant a garden with your children. Caring for a garden is great exercise and helps children learn about food and the natural world. If you don’t have a backyard, grow a garden in flower boxes, planters, or look into methods that use bales of hay that can be kept on a patio or balcony.  Some urban neighborhoods also have shared community garden spaces.
  • Create scavenger hunts for your children
  • Plan picnics and hikes at nearby state and county parks
  • Go camping as a family. Many state parks have cabin options in addition to tent sites.
  • Stop at the library to pick up books on local trees, birds, and plants. Use those books to explore the backyard and identify the wildlife you find there.
  • Take evening walks as a family at neighborhood parks

Looking for more ideas?

Every family has different needs when planning outdoor time. We have some green time ideas that may help:

How are you planning to spend more time outside as a family this summer? So you see an improvement in your children’s symptoms after spending time in nature?

Spending time outside in a natural setting is good for your children’s health. Did you know it can also help some children with their ADHD symptoms? Keep reading for research on how green time benefits some children and for suggestions on how to spend more time outside as a family.