The great outdoors is great for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research suggests that being outside in natural environments reduces the severity of ADHD symptoms in kids (see here and here).
“[Being outside] provides ADHD children with a more open environment to appropriately express their energy,” according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Psychotherapist Terry Matlen, ACSW, agreed. “Children who are hyperactive and impulsive can release tension far easier being outside running, jumping, swinging and playing sports than sitting indoors.”
The inherent changes in the environment also are beneficial for kids with ADHD, she said. “There is a natural rhythm and movement that can offer a calming effect [such as a] slight breeze [and] gentle sounds of leaves rustling.”
Plus, it gives kids the opportunity to move their bodies, which also helps to reduce ADHD symptoms, according to Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of several books on ADHD, including Making the Grade with ADD: A Student’s Guide to Succeeding in College with Attention Deficit Disorder. “Exercise increases dopamine levels in the brain, and these levels are naturally low in the ADHD brain.”
Exercise also helps kids with ADHD “improve their balance, coordination and other gross motor skills,” Matlen said.
Below, you’ll find ideas on fun and engaging outdoor activities.
Structured & Simple Activities
“Structured, organized activities with simplified instructions such as art or creative activities, playing tag and yoga can be helpful for children with ADHD,” Sarkis said. She also stressed the importance of “unstructured free play.”
“Healthy competition can be very engaging and highly stimulating,” Olivardia said. You can involve your kids in team sports such as soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, football or tennis.
While some kids with ADHD thrive in team sports, “many have problems with social skills and poor motor skills (clumsiness),” said Matlen, author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. So activities such as “running, swimming, biking, climbing on playground equipment might be better activities than playing on a soccer or tennis team.”
“Children with ADHD are curious and most love nature,” Matlen said. She suggested everything from gardening to setting up bird feeders. Then kids can “quietly wait for birds to feed, [which is] a great skill to develop.”
Matlen also suggested “activities like painting the fence, raking leaves [and] hauling things in the wheelbarrow.” These kinds of activities are effective “because it forces children to use their bodies against resistance which offers a calming effect, much like some therapeutic activities occupational therapists use with children with ADHD.”
“Activities that may be difficult to engage a kid with ADHD indoors may be an entirely different experience outdoors,” Olivardia said.
He worked with a 12-year-old boy with ADHD, who had a hard time reading. His client concluded that he was just a bad reader. But Olivardia suggested he read outside. “It worked! He attributes his dramatic increase in reading endurance to ‘being in a space without walls.’”
Being outdoors gives kids with ADHD permission to move, Olivardia said. And that can be incredibly empowering. “The ‘bull in the china shop’ indoors could be the tree climber, fastest runner, or nature walker outdoors.”
As Matlen said, “Kids with ADHD are constantly being told to sit still, be quiet and stay clean. Having the opportunity to run free, roll in the dirt and play with the garden hose are important outlets that can help ease hyperactivity and impulsivity.” And it’s important for parents to encourage that.
The great outdoors also can become a valuable teacher. “There are many learning opportunities in almost any outdoor experience,” Matlen said. For instance, your child can measure how many cups of sand they need to fill a bucket or learn to take care of plants, she said.