For the estimated 5.4 million children living with ADHD, it’s a struggle to sit still, contain their impulses, and pay attention (CDC, 2011). That lack of focus turns school and homework into major obstacles.
Treatment for ADHD generally involves stimulant medications, such as Adderall, Concerta, or Focalin, as well as therapy to combat impulsive and hyperactive behaviors. Yet treatment for ADHD is not one-size-fits-all, and not every child responds to the standard approach. Plus, prescription drugs can be costly and can have side effects ranging from appetite loss to sleep problems.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the right treatment for kids with ADHD, so researchers have been exploring alternative therapies that work alone or in combination with medication and therapy. Increasingly, researchers are finding that a back-to-nature approach may help control symptoms in kids with ADHD. Spending just a few minutes outdoors each day may help manage ADHD symptoms. (Kuo, F)
What Does Green Space Therapy Involve?
One well-studied alternative technique is called “green space therapy” or “green time.” It involves play and other activities in areas with grass and trees, such as a park, farm, soccer field, or grassy yard.
Outdoor activities can include:
- playing sports or other games
Even sedentary activities like reading seem to have some positive influence on ADHD symptoms if they’re done outside in green spaces. Children don’t even have to go outdoors to take part in this therapy process. Reading or doing homework by a window with a view of trees and grass also seems to offer some benefit.
Getting outside and into green spaces is relatively easy for children who live in rural or suburban areas, but it can be more challenging for kids in urban areas. Researchers are currently investigating whether looking at slides or videos of green spaces might be an alternative to actually going outside for these children.
How Does Green Space Therapy Treat ADHD?
The benefit of green space therapy for ADHD is based on an idea environmental psychologists call “attention fatigue.” When people—even those without ADHD—are in situations in which they’re forced to focus their attention or block out stimuli, eventually they can have trouble paying attention and restraining their impulses. Anyone who has had to sit in a quiet theater and focus on a speaker at a podium for a long period of time knows it can be a challenge to ignore a buzzing cell phone or tune out the people sitting around them. Eventually, they become worn out with the effort of having to pay attention. Being outdoors in a green space gives people a break from focusing their attention and helps them recover from this “attention fatigue.” (Kuo F., Faber, T., 2004)
Research has shown that this concept applies to children with ADHD—a condition that has many symptoms in common with attention fatigue. When kids with ADHD spend time outside or looking at nature, it increases their ability to pay attention and control their impulses. (Kuo F., Faber, T., 2004)
Scientific Studies on Green Space Therapy
Several scientific studies give credence to the idea of using green spaces to treat ADHD. Much of the research has been conducted at the Human-Environment Research Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. Kuo (Kuo F., Faber, T., 2004).
In one of their studies, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, the researchers interviewed 452 parents of children with ADHD, ages five to 18. They asked parents how their children’s symptoms changed when they performed activities in different settings (for example, if they read indoors versus in a green, outdoor area) (Kuo F., Faber, T., 2004).
The researchers found that children’s symptoms improved when the activities were performed outdoors in green spaces instead of indoors or in built outdoor settings, such as a parking lot or downtown area. The effects were consistent in both boys and girls. It didn’t matter where the children lived, how old they were, or whether their ADHD was mild or severe. It also didn’t seem to matter what activities the children were doing, as long as they did them outdoors.
A 2011 study by the same authors, published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, found that kids with ADHD who regularly play in green settings have milder symptoms than those who play indoors or in built outdoor settings. In the study, children who tended to be very hyperactive had milder symptoms if they often played in an open green environment, such as a field, instead of a more enclosed green space or indoor setting (Taylor A., Kuo F., 2011).
University of Illinois researchers also tested the effects of exposure to green space on kids with ADHD living in the inner city. The researchers randomly assigned children in urban housing projects to apartment buildings that had either green views or plain city views. Kids who had access to green views scored better on tests of impulse control than kids with the city views (Kuo F., Faber, T., 2004).
A 2008 study by the same researchers found that children with ADHD performed better on tests of attention after taking a 20-minute walk in the park (where they were surrounded by trees and other greenery) than after taking the same walk in a downtown area or residential neighborhood (ScienceDaily, 2008).
Other Benefits of Green Space Therapy
In addition to improving ADHD symptoms, exposure to green spaces can have more general health benefits. A Dutch study found that people living near green spaces have fewer physical and mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
Other studies have cited a number of positive health effects in people who live in close contact with nature, including:
- lower levels of stress
- reduced blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors
- improved mood and self-esteem
- reduced risk of substance abuse
- improved ability to interact socially with friends, family, pets, and wildlife
- increased levels of physical activity
The Future of Green Space Therapy
The research that has been conducted so far on green space therapy for ADHD is promising. However, more studies still need to be done, including research to determine whether this kind of therapy might also help in the classroom—a place where many kids with ADHD struggle. Taking children outside has several advantages as it is inexpensive, accessible, and doesn’t have any side effects.
Researchers say that exposing kids with ADHD to green settings could be a helpful addition to medication and therapy. Though there isn’t a specific amount of green time experts “prescribe” for children with ADHD, they say that as little as 20 minutes outside in a park or backyard setting may help. By improving children’s focus and controlling their impulses outside, green space therapy may help parents inside by helping children succeed in school and complete homework with less procrastination and fewer battles.