Spending Time in Nature: A Natural Remedy for Children with ADHD
Updated: Mar 17
Have you ever considered that something that can help alleviate your child's ADHD symptoms exists right outside your home? Spending time in nature may benefit children with ADHD significantly.
A number of studies support the claim that regular exposure to the outdoors and green space is a safe, natural treatment that can be used to help children. Activities in nature may increase their ability to pay attention and decrease levels of stress and anxiety.
In the book The Last Child in Woods, author Richard Louv suggests that today’s children are the first generation to be raised without meaningful contact with the natural world. He also offers examples of ways you can thoughtfully incorporate nature into your child's life.
How Nature Can be Restorative
According to psychologist William James, there are two kinds of attention: directed attention (used when dealing with tasks that require mental effort) and fascination (i.e., involuntary attention).
Inspired by William James, a husband-and-wife research team, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan began a nine-year study for the U.S Forest Service. They followed participants in an Outward Bound-like wilderness program, which took people into the wild for up to two weeks.
During and after this period, participants reported experiencing a sense of peace and an ability to think more clearly. They also noted that just being in nature was more restorative than the physically challenging activities, such as rock climbing, for which such programs are mainly known.
According to the Kaplans’ research, too much directed attention leads to what they call "directed-attention fatigue," marked by impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and inability to concentrate.
As Stephen Kaplan explained in the journal Monitor on Psychology, "If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that's strong on fascination." The fascination factor associated with nature is restorative, and it helps relieve people from direct-attention fatigue.
Tip #1: Choose the Outdoor Activities you Can Enjoy Together
A growing body of research shows that children and adults who spend time in nature increase their ability to pay attention and have lower stress and anxiety levels.
These are some of the activities you can enjoy as a family:
Plant a garden with your children. Gardening may be a great form of exercise, but it also helps children learn more about nature. If you don't have a backyard, you can use flower boxes or planters.
Encourage your child to move strategically by engaging in sensory, vestibular, and proprioceptive activities. Some of these activities include going down a slide, swinging high in the air, riding a scooter, or performing inverted yoga poses.
Create scavenger hunts for your children. Head out to your backyard, a local park, or any other outdoor area your children are familiar with. Then, create a list of objects from the natural world for your children to collect (tree branches, rocks, or flowers). Start the clock and send your kids on a mission to collect all the items as quickly as possible.
No matter which activity you choose, adapt it to your timing, age, and family needs. You should probably try rotating different kinds of outdoor activities and trying a new one now and then.
Tip #2: Consider Changing Your Environment
Studies have found that being close to nature helps boost a child's attention span. When children's cognitive functioning was compared before and after they moved to more natural, green spaces, profound differences emerged in their attention capacities.
Researchers also compared children in two daycare settings: in one, the play area was built indoors; in the other, the play area was in nature. The study revealed that children in the green daycare, who played outside every day, experienced milder ADHD symptoms than their counterparts who played indoors.
Tip #3: Add Outdoor Activities to Your Homeschooling Plan
If you are homeschooling a child with ADHD, you probably already have a defined routine and a schedule. Ensuring that outdoor activities and exercise are part of your daily plan might improve attention and reduce hyperactivity.
Before you start your daily lessons, try encouraging your child to play outside for 20 minutes. A little green time before any activity that requires attention might have a calming effect.
Take 20-minute ‘study hikes’ outdoors where you read to your children or lecture them on a critical topic.
Pick up a few books on local trees, birds, and plants. Then, use those books to explore your backyard or local park and identify the wildlife you find there.
If possible, try placing your child's desk in front of a window with a view of nature.
Tip #4: Choose the Right Outdoor Sports For Children with ADHD
Getting children involved in sports offers plenty of benefits, including physical exercise, development of social skills, and even enhanced self-esteem. But not all sports positively impact ADHD traits.
When choosing the right outdoor activity, keep in mind that the decision of which sport is best for your child should depend on coaching dynamics, the sport's overall pace, and focus on teamwork versus individual performance.
In most cases, the sports that are beneficial for children with ADHD are those with a more individual focus:
Track or Cross Country: Running may teach discipline and pacing, plus your child will still gain the social benefits of being a member of a team without directly competing with other children.
Martial Arts: Students master each new martial arts combination through step-by-step instruction, which leaves little opportunity for distraction. One surprising benefit of martial arts is its use of rituals, such as bowing to the instructor, which can help teach kids with ADHD to accept, develop, and adopt routines in other areas of their lives.
Tennis: Tennis often helps children with sustained concentration. Besides, hitting tennis balls can be an excellent way for your child to release any anger or frustration.
Horseback riding: Horses can mirror the emotions and attitudes of their handlers. As your child interacts with the horse, they may learn to observe and react to the animal's behaviors instead of responding with their usual behavioral patterns.
Why is Being in Nature so Relaxing?
Have you ever felt calm after gazing at the ocean? Or after hiking in the woods? That's because of the fractal patterns which can be found throughout nature. A fractal is an intricate pattern repeated at fine magnification. Through exposure to nature's fractal scenery, your visual system has adapted to process fractals with ease, and that's why it's so calming to look at repeating shapes: waves, tree branches, or coastlines.
But that's also why it's sometimes stressful looking at city intersections or other complicated scenes. Stress reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the eye's fractal structure matches that of the fractal image being viewed. That may be why we enjoy spending time in nature as much as we do.
In theory, when children have to struggle to maintain attention, neurotransmitters in their brain's prefrontal cortex (an essential site for working memory function) become depleted. If they struggle too long without a break, they can experience a condition that's often called attention fatigue. One of the best ways for the system to replenish itself is for the child to spend time in nature.
Greenery and nature settings may have an astounding effect on your child. But before you step outside to enjoy the relaxing and attention-enhancing effects of nature, remember these practical solutions:
Tip #1: Choose the outdoor activities you can enjoy together: plant a garden with your child, encourage your child to move strategically, or create scavenger hunts.
Tip #2: Consider changing your environment. According to research, moving to more natural, green spaces may boost a child's attention span.
Tip #3: Add outdoor activities to your homeschooling plan. Let your child play for 20 minutes before lectures, take 20-minute ‘study hikes’, explore nature, or try placing your child's desk in front of a window with a view of nature.
Tip #4: Choose the right outdoor sports for children with ADHD. Try cross country, martial arts, tennis, or horseback riding.
There are a variety of treatments for children with ADHD, but most experts suggest that outdoor activities are among the most effective complementary remedies for alleviating ADHD symptoms. So, don’t miss a chance to spend some family time in nature. Evidence suggests that the positive effects may surprise you!