Green time, a natural remedy for ADHD syptoms

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?

Forest bathing – the practice of Shinrin-yoku

Benefits of Forest Bathing

Did you know that just being in the presence of trees has been proven to be beneficial for your health and wellbeing? Since 1982 the Japanese have been encouraging the public and especially office-bound workers to take a daily break from the office to walk or sit in a nearby green space, ideally with trees, such as natural forest or urban park, with the aim of boosting employee wellbeing, morale, concentration and ultimately productivity. The Japanese forest ministry coined the term Shirin-Yoku or ‘forest bathing’ as it is translated and promoted daily outside activity in nature for as little as 30 minutes per day.

Forest bathing has been scientifically studied and has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.

The research

Experiments on forest bathing conducted by the Centre for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20’s. The team measured the subjects’ salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments,” the study concluded.

In other words, being in nature made subjects, physiologically, calmer, more focussed and less reactive. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s rest-and-digest system while the sympathetic nervous system governs fight-or-flight responses. Subjects were more rested and less inclined to stress after a time spent forest bathing.

Soothing the Psyche

Trees and nature filled landscapes soothe the psyche too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”

How to practice Forest Bathing

• Go solo rather than with someone who you will end up chatting to. If you do go together for safety, ensure you don’t spend most of the time talking.
• Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet
• Turn your mobile off, do not take photos or check your fitbit steps
• Make a conscious decision to leave your worries behind you at the start of the trail rather than going to ruminate on them as this will negate the benefits.
• Make sure you are somewhere safe where you have cellphone reception if you need to call anyone for help.
• Sit against a tree or at a view place, or meander along a trail slowly, focussing on being in the present, using your senses to take in everything around you.
• Don’t focus on achieving anything, rather see it as a time to practice mindfulness or receive the benefits of nature.
• Just be with trees, plants and the birds and insects that you encounter. No hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit.
• The aim is to relax in nature for 30 minutes or more
• Nature’s ultimate mysteries and wisdom is beyond our understanding so approach the forest as a living intelligence that may be greater than your understanding with just your senses alone.
• At the end, offer a prayer or gesture of gratitude to the forest or trees and pick up any litter you find on your way back as a thank you.

10 ways to get more nature time for your kids

10 ways to get more nature time for your kids

Exciting new research is pointing to a direct link between your child’s health, happiness, their development of skills for a successful life, and the amount of time that they spend outside in nature.
Research from the last 10 years, is highlighting the myriad of benefits that nature has on our bodies, our emotional wellbeing and our cognitive abilities at school and at work.

What about their safety?

Many parents today will admit to having real concerns about their kid’s safety outdoors. Crime, especially here in South Africa, has had a detrimental effect on the freedom children have to play independently in a neighbourhood park, to cycle to school or even walk safely with their family on the mountains or beaches around some urban areas. Other factors, like urban densification, as well as lack of free time in our busy schedules and a lack of safe, nearby green spaces, means that it’s often easier and safer for us to rather have them play indoors. And when the nagging begins of ‘Im bored’, we often feel guilty that we should be entertaining our kids and so give in to the battle of screen entertainment.

Nature as balance to stress

Our kids are more stressed and overloaded with extra-murals and homework than ever before. But regular access to nature is beginning to be seen as no longer just a fun activity we sometimes do, superfluous to other types of children’s activities like organised sports, extra murals and school life on the playground. Scheduling nature time for your kids and the rest of the family in the average busy day is possibly more important for your physical and mental health, overall wellbeing, happiness and longevity than these other more structured activities.
Doctors and GP’s in the UK and USA are now beginning to prescribe a dose of regular nature time, as a relatively cheaper and easily accessible alternative for patients, prior to medications and other physical and psychological interventions. Getting your dose of regular Viatmin N (Nature) is coming up trumps as a first line measure of defence to help your kids stave off anxiety, depression, ADHD, obesity and many more of the detrimental effects of our fast paced, technology driven and hyperindividualised lifestyles.

Plus studies link regular time to play in nature from infancy and beyond adolesence as vital for developing executive functioning in children. Executive functioning is an inter-related set of mental processes that allow people to retain information, focus their attention, problem solve and think creatively, filter out distractions, organize, initiate, make decisions and control emotions. Vital for school-going children and their educational success.

Some easy ideas for more regular nature time

Ensure that your children have access to some nature or nature activity daily. There are no specific guidelines yet in terms of recommended hours, but the more the better, so here are some simple ways and guidelines for you and your kids to have more time in nature every day:

1. Go to parks and botanical gardens with friends. If you don’t have your own garden then schedule a regular playdate with another family for your afternoons at a local park, where you too can get your needed vitamin D boost and nature time too. It doesn't have to cost anything, just identify a safe, green space near to you to meet your friends, bring a ball and let them play.

2. Start a nature table at home of collected nature items you find on walks or around your neighbourhood. Use them creatively to add to nature art at home with water, clay, soil or paint. Allow them to be explored, broken apart and made into new creations, just like they woud be if playing in nature with found objects.

3. Garden with your kids. Get them outside and involved with you, starting a small herb garden or doing simple garden chores like weeding or watering. Be sure to make it feel fun and not like a punishment or difficult chore by letting them have some decision making and even tools for their small hands. Recycle old plastic plant pots for seed experiments. Children thrive with their parent’s attention and involvement and it creates wonderful family bonding time.

4. Hike and walk. Join or start a regular weekend hiking group with friends, so you feel safety in numbers and so there are others with similar aged kids. Add to the fun, by adding in nature challenges like finding animal tracks, geo-caching, creating a painted rock to leave for somone to find, or use the iNaturalist app to identify flora and fauna or go mushroom foraging with somone in the know.

5. Let your kids get dirty. Forget about mess and dirty clothes. Your worries are quickly felt by your kids making them mess-averse and more cautious in their play. Play should be messy to be fun and creative. Take along a backpack always when going outside to play with water and small snack, suncream, change of clothes and a warmer layer or two.

6. Include nature while studying. Before a slot of exam studying, plan a short walk outside with your kids, as this helps the brain to restore and calm itself before periods of stressful cognitive learning. Include short breaks for physical and mental restoration. Ask them to go outside on their breaks, and not engage with their phones. Get them to stand and sky-gaze for 5 to 10 minutes, do a few yoga like stretches, or walk somewhere with abudant nature or even run around the block if safe. Don't forget the power of animal therapy by patting the family pets or smelling different scented plants that you find pleasant.

7. Create a nature filled 'invitation to play'. Before home work and tv in the afternoon, ensure your kids have had some nature time. If its rainy, set up an indoor ‘invitation to play’, a small table or area with some collected nature items, some clay or art materials waiting for them to explore and prompting creativity. Ideas could be painting or drawing on rocks with marker pens, clay and nature creations. Keep the activity open ended as much as possible to allow creative thinking and problem solving.

8. When you host playdates, try and restrain the use of screens and electronic devices. Encourage bike riding and scooters, outside games, tree climbing and fort building, swimming and tag games outside. If they nag for tv or screens, then keep it boundaried with a set amount of time when that is allowed.

9. Create a space in the garden that is theirs to play in, preferably with some cover for rainy days. Keep it surrounded and obscured by trees and plants and allow the child to make it their own and feel hidden. Keep old sticks, pebbles, even big leaves to encourage them to play with all their senses and body, creating a fort or place to have a tea party with their toys.

10. Go to the beach regularly even for a late afternoon stroll with the dogs and family. Vitamin Sea is wonderfully energizing, grounding and calming for us. Create land art by using washed up sea weed, a stick or shell to write your names or create something collaboratively as a family moment. Buckets and spades and a plastic bag to collect litter are useful to keep in the boot for spontaneous beach outtings.