Tag Archives: ADHD

Outdoor Classrooms Improve Indoor Learning

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Last week I had the opportunity to do one of my favorite activities: educating children about our forest habitat. Often I have the job of shepherding groups of children through the deciduous forest in which we live, but this time I had a station where I was talking about the animals that live in our forests in Virginia. Believe it or not, I love doing this! I was speaking with 2nd graders, so they were very energetic – it was a field trip after all! – but they were also full of wonder. I truly believe that wonder and information are what will enable all of us to live more peaceably with the natural world. We talked about habitats, and food chains, bob cats and deer, coyotes, foxes, and rabbits, and, of course, skunks. For the girl who suggested a million times that every creature we discussed should eat fish, we talked about river otters. Overall, it was a wonderful time. They learned a lot, and I lost my voice!

Then I came back and did a little research, as I love to do, to see what has been published on the topic. I was curious because my children’s school has a beautiful outdoor classroom that is in a similar forest, but it’s been my experience that sometimes teachers feel it’s a lot of trouble to go out there. I am very sympathetic to their viewpoint, and as someone who knows I could never be a teacher and stands in awe of all they do every day, please know that’s not a criticism. So I thought it was interesting that a recent publication in a 2017 issue of Frontiers in Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5758746/) suggests that children are more attentive and focused indoors in the period after they’ve spent time learning in an outdoor classroom. Good news! And that goes along with all the research that suggests time outdoors enhances our memory and attention – adults AND children! So teachers, if you want happier, better behaved, more focused children – find a way to take them outside for a nature lesson.

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ADHD is a walk in the park! Literally

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“My child just can’t pay attention! We are trying everything! I’m at my wits end!”

I hear this often from my friends who have children with what the adults around them call attention issues. Although the trend towards instantly medication children with ADHD seems to be losing strength, I still know many parents who have been told – or believe – that their child has attention problems. And then they are placed on the roller coaster of trying the numerous strategies for coping with attention that are out there (many of which are effective, don’t get me wrong).

But I want to highlight the importance of getting all children out into nature. Every child benefits, but children with ADHD (diagnosed or not) seem to benefit more than most.

My personal view of this is that children need to run and play, and every single day should begin with recess, PE, or a walk in a natural setting, so that children can focus better. The research supports this, by the way – a 20-minute walk in a natural setting improves children’s attention and memory. And you can chalk that up to the natural setting – researchers found that a walk in an urban setting did not lead to as much improvement, according to research published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Attention Disorders. Yes, that’s old research, but as long as children are not starting their day off with a 20 minute walk in nature, I think it’s worth talking about why. This doesn’t have to be “wasted” time, either. A nature walk is an excellent opportunity for hands on learning and social skills building. It’s important to remember that children feel a natural awe over things that we adults might not even pay attention to anymore. A huge sunflower, the patterns of bark, the tiniest inch worm – children have a depth of appreciation for the minutiae that benefits all of us.

Alright, so let’s say that taking a walk in a park isn’t feasible for the 4.4 million children who are thought to have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders. There’s another way – green play areas. I am not talking about hard metal bars painted green! Kids who have the opportunity to play in a space that has a variety of greenery – shrubs, flowers, trees, grass – have milder attention deficit symptoms than their ADHD peers who are in less green play spaces. Perhaps not surprisingly, children with hyperactivity do best in wide open green spaces, according to researchers publishing in the November 2011 issue of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Again, old news, maybe – but take a journey around the schools in your area and you will probably not see the kinds of green play areas that would most benefit children.

At the very least, parents, let’s start making an effort to go walk in a park as often as possible with our kids. All this data applies to elementary school age children, by the way. We’ll explore the relationship between middle school and high school youth and green space at a later date.

Here’s what you can do –

  • If you have children, try to get them outside into parks as often as possible. Outside in general is good, of course, but the more diverse the greenery, animals, and birds, the better for them (and you!)
  • Advocate with your local schools, school board, or community for greener spaces – outdoor classrooms, school gardens, and so on. Of course, if you are committed enough to this to become a Master Gardener or a Master Naturalist, that’s even better! Volunteering is good for you too. But, it’s true that those green spaces require maintenance and even teachers sometimes need another trained adult to help them get the most out of green areas.
  • Create diverse green spaces in your neighborhoods and even indoors in your buildings. Make them inviting and friendly to children, as well as to parents.