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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and “Green Time”

by Jane St. Clair

Learning disabilities, ear infections, depression or anxiety can all be factors that could interfere with a child's ability to focus. These should be ruled out before arriving at a diagnosis of ADHD.

New scientific research proves children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) function better if they spend part of their day outdoors in nature.

The research results were very specific. In order to improve ADHD symptoms, the children in the study had to be outdoors in a natural setting.

The more natural and the more “wilderness-like” the setting, the more the children’s behavior improved. For example, playing outside in forests and open spaces calmed the ADHD children more than organized sports in park fields. Active play in indoor gymnasiums or outdoor play on paved surfaces, such as skateboarding in a city parking lot, did not reduce symptoms as much as time spent in a wilderness setting.

“We knew from our own studies and those of other scientists that in general, green is good. For ADHD kids however, green is great,” said Professor Frances E. Kuo, co-director of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Kuo and her cohorts, professors Andrea Faber Taylor and William C. Sullivan, have conducted many other studies about the effect of environments on the capacity to concentrate and perform mental tasks.

One of their key findings is that human beings can only concentrate for so long without becoming mentally tired, the same way physical muscles get tired from physical work. A person has to renew “mental muscles” by breaks or periods of what these scientists call “involuntary attention.” Time spent in nature is measurably more “attention-restoring” than indoor leisure activity like television watching, video games, and so forth. By the way, Dr. Faber believes that the brain mechanism that regulates attention and concentration is the same one that regulates a person’s self-discipline.

In their latest study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the Illinois research team had parents of 322 ADHD boys and 84 ADHD girls in all parts of the United States keep journals about their children’s weekend and after-school activities and symptoms. After the children spent time in natural settings, they were calmer and better able to concentrate, and had less trouble completing tasks and following directions. Many parents reported their children slept better at night if the day included time in nature. Wilderness settings had the most dramatic effect in reducing symptoms, but just being outdoors helped somewhat too.

The research team is hopeful that their results will particularly help the ten-percent of ADHD children who do not respond to medications.

Although “green time” in wilderness was best at reducing symptoms, Dr. Taylor reported that “Time is better spent if (children) go into a backyard or down to the park than if they go down to a basement with no windows and no views and focus on attention-demanding video games.”

The number of children taking medicine for ADHD disorder has risen from 150,000 in 1975 to over two and a half million today. About 3 to 6% of American children are believed to have ADHD, and there is no evidence that the disorder is being overly diagnosed (see Goldman below). Parents and teachers often speak of medicines like Ritalin as “godsends” for children who can’t sit still, disrupt classrooms, can’t concentrate and otherwise display hyperactivity.

No one knows for sure why there are so many new cases of ADHD, but modern scientific evidence is pointing toward physical causes. British researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London found that the area of the brain that controls impulsivity—from the frontal lobe to caudate nucleus —is less active in ADHD children. Researchers at the US National Institute of Mental Health discovered that the brains of children with ADHD are slightly smaller than normal, and that Ritalin did not cause brain shrinkage. Psychiatrist Aiveen Kirley at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, believes that 80 percent of ADHD is caused by several faulty genes. Finally, Dr. Richard P. Ebstein, a molecular geneticist and laboratory director at the Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, has isolated a gene called DRD4 that seems to be a factor in ADHD.

Bibliography

Barkley, Russell Dr. Taking Charge of ADHD. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.

DeGrandpre, Richard. Ritalin Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Feingold, Dr. Ben. Why Your Child is Hyperactive. New York: Random House, 1974.

Goldman, Larry. “Little Evidence Found of Incorrect Diagnosis or Over-Prescription for ADHD,” Journal of the American Medical Association, April 8, 1998 .

Nadelson, Dr. Carol. Conduct Unbecoming: Hyperactivity, Attention Deficit and Behavior Disorders. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.

Taylor, Andrea F. Frances E. Kuo and William C. Sullivan. “Coping With ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings.” Environment and Behavior. Vol. 33 No. 1. January 2001. 54-77.

Taylor, AF et al. “Girls with Views of Nature Have Better Chance of Success,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 26, 2002

Taylor, AF et al. “A Natural Treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a National Study.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 94, No. 9, September 2004, 1580-1586.

Williams, Julie. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Press, 2001.

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