child playing outdoors

For many parents, the first sign their child has been labeled comes in the early years of elementary school. First grade, second, maybe even kindergarten. They might receive subtle, or not so subtle, warnings from teachers. They'll hear that their child is fidgety, lacks focus, is not attentive in class. The teacher is not legally allowed to diagnose the child but you know what they are intimating—ADHD.

For many of those children, these early childhood concerns, voiced at a time when they are just learning that life is not all about play, will start them on a longterm relationship with prescription drugs.

The United States may wear the badge of being the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world, but ADHD is a worldwide phenomenon. And rates are soaring. Between 1993 through 2003, global use of ADHD medications rose threefold from, whereas global spending rose ninefold.

But what if there was a low‐cost, side‐effect‐free way of managing ADHD symptoms? An approach that has helped many kids feel more calm, focused and attentive— without meds.

Enter the outdoors. Among the many benefits of nature for a child’s physical, social and academic development, several significant studies have found that the outdoors may also reduce ADHD symptoms.

Researchers at the University of Illinois reported that exposure to nature during after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children. The authors asked the parents of 322 boys and 84 girls who had been diagnosed with ADHD about their children's symptoms after participating in a wide range of activities, some of which were conducted indoors, others were in outdoor spaces without much greenery such as parking lots and downtown areas, and some in natural outdoor settings such as a tree-lined street, backyard, or park. The authors found that green outdoor activities were beneficial in reducing ADHD symptoms among both boys and girls.

In another study (published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being) researchers examined whether children's routine exposures to greenspace, experienced through everyday play settings, led to ongoing reductions in ADHD symptoms. The study found that everyday play settings made a difference in overall symptom severity in children with ADHD. And that children with ADHD who play regularly in green play settings have milder symptoms than children who play in built outdoor and indoor settings. Interestingly, the apparent advantage of green spaces is true only for relatively open green settings.

And how about interventions parents can take to avoid ADHD symptoms? One vein of research consistently finds that early exposure to screens is the main culprit in ADHD symptoms later in life. One significant study showed that for each hour of TV preschoolers watched a day, the chance of having ADHD symptoms at age 7 increased by 10 percent. Significantly, when parents themselves are glued to their screens, they limit their opportunities for vital bonding that helps with a child’s self-regulation and control, two prevalent symptoms in children with ADHD.

Of course, every child is different and will respond to different approaches. But one thing is certain. The outdoors certainly can't harm a child. And yet, we're not so sure we can say that about prescription drugs.