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Nature therapy and ADHD

Topics: Human Wellbeing | Comments

Nature therapy and ADHD

Recent studies have shown that regular doses of nature can be an effective tool in managing the symptoms of ADHD.

Many parents instinctively know the calming effect that time spent in nature can have on their kids: it’s common for children to be urged to go outside to ‘run off’ some excess energy.

But for the parents of children and adolescents suffering from Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a walk in the park may be an even more important part of their daily routine – recent studies have shown that regular contact with nature can improve the attention of children with ADHD symptoms and provide a boost to conventional drug treatment and therapies.

ADHD is a neurobehavioral development disorder that affects an estimated 3 to 5 per cent of children worldwide. Symptoms include chronic difficulty paying attention and focusing on tasks, and those affected can be impulsive, outburst-prone and sometimes aggressive. Standard treatments for the condition include a range of medications and behavior therapies.

The Landscape and Human Health Lab (LHHL) is a multidisciplinary research laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that is dedicated to studying the connection between greenery and human health. Researchers at the LHHL have conducted studies on children with ADHD in recent years, with results suggesting that nature has a calming, restorative effect on children and adolescents with ADHD, reducing their symptoms and even having a positive effect in cases where other treatments offer only limited relief.

LHHL member Dr Andrea Faber Taylor is a child environment and behavior researcher. She says lab researchers have used a variety of methods to measure the benefits of time in nature, including standardised psychology measures of attention and parent ratings of symptom severity. The tests, while small, have uniformly shown that time spent in green settings improves the attention and impulse control of children and adolescents with ADHD symptoms.

In a recent study conducted by Dr Faber Taylor and her colleague, LHHL founder Dr Frances Kuo, 17 children diagnosed with ADHD were taken on walks in three different environments over the space of three weeks. After each walk, concentration was measured using the Digit Scan Backwards test. Results showed that children with ADHD concentrated substantially better (‘shockingly better’, according to Dr Kuo) after a walk in the park than after walks in the city or a suburban environment. This finding led the researchers to conclude that ‘doses of nature’ might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms.

Dr Taylor Faber says so far the lab’s research has only focused on measuring attention deficits because theory suggests that nature fosters restoration from attentional fatigue, which is likely to be contributing to or exacerbating attention deficit symptoms. ‘However, our research with children in the general population suggests that impulsivity is also reduced by contact with green spaces, and thus we’d like to measure the benefits of contact with nature on impulsivity in children with ADHD,’ she says. ‘It is likely that impulsivity also improves with nature exposure.’

Dr Faber Taylor says while more research is needed to measure how long the benefits of nature exposure last, ‘one thing we do know is that the effects last long enough for parents to notice them and be able to report them on surveys’.

She says it’s also too early to tell if contact with nature could serve as a stand-alone treatment, but ‘it does seem plausible that for children with very mild symptoms, daily doses of nature to support their attentional functioning might be enough for them to cope with their ADHD symptoms’. Dr Faber Taylor says the evidence thus far suggests that frequent doses of nature are worth trying as a supplement to traditional treatments for ADHD symptoms. ‘Parents and children could add some time in nature to their daily routines and see if the child experiences any improvements in their symptoms. At the very least they are likely to enjoy the time together and may receive other benefits such as a little exercise, attention restoration, and stress reduction.’

So could we see a time in the future when doctors treating children for ADHD symptoms prescribe a dose a nature as part of a treatment plan? Dr Faber Taylor says the health sector has been open to hearing about the LHHL’s research findings, ‘but understandably they are not rushing to promote it yet. We really need to run randomised clinical trials to test it further as a treatment. But our work thus far looks promising.’

In the meantime, she is heartened by the increasing awareness in the US about the health benefits of contact with nature, particularly the benefits for children.

‘I am very happy to watch the explosion of new ‘get children back to nature’ groups that have formed across the US as a result of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and the work of the Children and Nature Network,’ Dr Faber Taylor says. ‘There are also many, many other grassroots movements developing campaigns and programs for increasing children’s contact with nature.’

‘In addition, I am delighted to see students from a wide range of disciplines participating in my course at the University of Illinois, which focuses on the research supporting the notion that children benefit in myriad ways from contact with nature.’


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