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Easing ADHD is a walk in the park

October 16, 2008 |  4:02 pm

As many as 2 million American children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition that makes it hard for children to control their behavior or pay attention. That means that in a class of 25 or 30 kids, Kid2 it's likely one of them will have the often disruptive condition. And parents know that getting a simple homework assignment done can take hours longer than it should.

Treatment can include behavioral management, medications such as Adderal or Ritalin, or some combination of both. But a new study in the Journal of Attention Disorders shows that parents might try a simple romp through nature as a way of gaining some peaceful, attentive time with their ADHD kids.

Researchers from the University of Illinois took children with the condition on 20-minute walks. On various days, they walked through urban downtowns, through residential neighborhoods, and through a grassy, tree-filled park. Each child took all three walks, and then was tested only against himself or herself on a standard neurocognitive test that measures attention. In the test, for which studying and preparation is useless, a series of numbers is given, and the child has to recite the series backwards.

The walk in the green space proved best for improving attention.

"What this particular study tells us is that the physical environment matters," said Frances Kuo, an author of the study. "We don't know what it is about the park, exactly –- the greenness or lack of buildings –- that seems to improve attention, but the study tells us that even though everything else was the same –- who the child was with, the levels of noise, the length of time, the time of day, whether the child was on medication -– if we kept everything else the same, we just changed the environment, we still saw a measurable difference in children's symptoms. And that's completely new. No one has done a study looking at a child in different environments, in a controlled comparison where everything else is the same."

The kids who were on medications skipped their doses of drugs on the days of the walks, and researchers found that a dose of nature was, at least for a while, as effective as a dose of medication.

It makes sense, in that sort of "well, it can't hurt" way. Parks are generally more peaceful and soothing in themselves than bustling downtowns or distracting residential areas. And it's easy enough to give it a try, what with a romp through nature being good for kids under any circumstances.

"I could imagine parents hearing about this research and immediately applying it -– just trying it out –- taking their child to the park either when their child's symptoms are exacerbated or as a regular routine. It's not that hard to incorporate, especially if they have a green backyard or if they can get to a neighborhood park," said Andrea Faber Taylor, lead author of the study. "Again, we can't say for sure that it would work for any given child –- but there's probably very little risk involved in encouraging your child to play outdoors and seeing if their symptoms improve."

Come to think of it, it might work for children and adults who don't have ADHD. Those of us who just have standard mental fatigue and a now-and-then inability to stay focused might benefit from a regular dose of calming nature. What could it hurt?

-- Susan Brink

Photo: A child plays on straw bales in Germany. Credit: Michael Probst / AP