Can attention deficit symptoms be eased by alternative ADHD treatments like exercise? Research shows “green” time can lead to an increased ability to focus.
Article by Carl Sherman, Ph.D.
Can a walk on the beach, a weekend camping trip, or another alternative ADHD treatment really ease symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD)? Child advocate and author Richard Louv certainly thinks so; his latest book is titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
And recent studies led by University of Illinois researcher Frances Kuo, Ph.D., provide solid evidence linking time spent in natural surroundings to an increased ability to focus with ADHD. Recently, frequent ADDitude contributor Carl Sherman, Ph.D., spoke with Dr. Kuo about her findings and what they mean for parents of children with ADD.
What gave you the idea that nature might be good for those with ADD?
A number of studies had shown that adults without ADD concentrate better if they have access to natural surroundings. Researchers asked people how much time they spent in parks, gardens, and other green environments. Then they asked how attentive they felt, how focused they were at work, and how likely they were to misplace things.
The researchers found that, the greater the exposure to nature, the greater the attentiveness. These findings have been corroborated by objective measures of attention. There’s less research with children, but it points the same way.
What, do you think, is going on?
The theory is that, when you have to struggle to maintain attention — what happens when you concentrate on a task like writing or doing computations — neurotransmitters in the brain’s prefrontal cortex get depleted. If you struggle too long without a break, you experience a condition that might be called “attention fatigue.” You need to let the system replenish itself, and being in a natural environment seems to let it do that.
It’s a small step from this to ADD, which is basically a chronic form of attention fatigue. The question is whether the positive effect of being in nature is big enough to produce a noticeable reduction in symptoms.
What do your findings suggest?
Our findings suggest that the effect is big enough. In one of our studies, published in the American Journal of Public Health, we asked nearly 500 parents of five- to 18-year-old kids with ADD about the effect of different after-school and weekend activities.
Did certain activities improve the children’s ability to concentrate?
The parents told us that their kids’ focus was better following outdoor activities than after indoor activities, and that activities done in green environments, with lots of trees and grass around, lead to the biggest improvements in attention of all the outdoor activities.
Maybe it’s the types of activities typically done outdoors. In other words, could it be that playing baseball promotes concentration better than, say, reading?
I don’t think so. We compared the same activities in all three settings — for instance, you can play basketball indoors, in an asphalt schoolyard, or in a park — and there was a clear advantage to the most natural environment.
We also asked parents where their children typically play—in a windowless basement, in the kitchen with a view of the yard, outside in the street, or in a place with trees and grass. It was the same story. The greener the setting, the better the ability to focus — in other words, the milder the ADD symptoms.
Do green environments help curb hyperactivity as well as inattention?
There’s reason to think so. A study of healthy kids in public housing found that those who lived in apartments with a relatively green view had better impulse control than those with barren views. There are some findings along the same lines for adults, but we haven’t tested it yet.
Do these studies suggest that parents of ADD children should encourage their kids to spend more time outdoors?
What are the risks? We don’t know of any — beyond splinters, bug bites, and the like. So giving them more outside time seems worth trying. The consistency of the reports from parents in our surveys gives me faith in parents’ ability to see what’s going on with their kids, so why not encourage greener activities and watch what happens? My guess is that, if there’s an
effect, it will be pretty obvious.
Any specific suggestions? If there’s a choice of routes to and from school, try walking or driving the greener one. Before starting on homework, it might be nice for your child to have a snack and play outside for 20 minutes. Lots of parents have the opposite inclination: Do homework first, then go out and play.
I think parents could try to give their children a little green time before any activity that requires attention. For example, if your child has trouble sitting still in church, send him to play ball on the lawn for 20 minutes before you go. If you have a garden, enlist your child’s help with gardening. Pay a family visit to the park or a nature preserve on the weekend.
It might be interesting to see if parking your child in front of a window with a nice view to do homework makes a difference versus doing homework in a room without a view. For most kids, natural views aren’t too distracting. But reactions differ, so I would say try it for a few days to find out.
How about vacations?
This isn’t something we looked at scientifically, but the parents we spoke with seemed pretty positive about “natural” vacations. My favorite comment was: “We went to Disney, and it was a disaster. But when we go camping, my child doesn’t have any symptoms!”
If you hate the woods, of course, it makes no sense to take your child camping. But if the choice were “we could go to Los Angeles or go camping,” I’d be inclined to try the camping.
What about city dwellers? Should they move to the country for the sake of the kids?
As a scientist, I have to say that there’s far too little data to recommend that. But as a parent who knows the research, I would say that if I had a kid with ADD, green would be a significant factor in my decision about where to live. My research has made me more aware of how much time my own seven-year-old son spends indoors, and more persistent in encouraging him to play outside.
Is green time also good for ADD adults?
This is something else we haven’t looked at. But I’d be pretty surprised if it weren’t. After all, we see the positive effect of green time in adults and children who don’t have ADD, as well as in kids who do have ADD. Why should non-ADD adults be any different?