Benefits of Outdoor Play for Your High Energy Kid with ADHD
Some kids have A LOT of energy! And there are many possible reasons for this, ranging from age and temperament to diet and activity. However, sometimes kids have so much energy that it impacts everyday life. When high energy doesn’t match the world around the kid and can’t be easily turned off, that’s hyperactivity.
It’s like an engine that keeps going and doesn’t slow down.
This level of hyperactivity is one component of ADHD and can be a significant concern for parents as it has a big impact on daily life. Especially in situations that require focus, quiet, or long periods of sitting still.
A child with ADHD might be observed to:
Bump into people
Play too rough
Always be moving
Struggle to sit or focus
Talk a LOT
One of the best ways to support children who are high energy, hyperactive, or have ADHD is to go outside! So much so, outdoor play is being praised as a significant component for managing the disruptive aspects of ADHD¹.
Let’s look at the ways outdoor play makes a difference for high energy kids.
Positive Outlet for Energy
No surprise on this one, kids with hyperactivity and ADHD benefit from physical activity² ³.
Makes sense, busy brains and bodies need a chance to use that incredible amount of energy.
Out of this constant need for movement comes some of the frustrating behaviors associated with ADHD, such as fidgeting, classroom distractibility, or play that’s too wild for peers or indoor spaces.
But before you sign your child up for every extracurricular sport, also consider the type of physical activity that your child might need. Most extracurricular activities are another structured environment requiring rule-following, paying attention, and body control.
Meaning the answer to using and channeling your kid’s high energy might not be extracurricular sports and activities. Instead, outdoor play might hold the key to calm.
With outdoor play, instead of being asked to be still or follow a specific format, kids are given the freedom to choose what they do in relation to their interests and how their body wants to move. The outdoors is naturally full of opportunities for big movements and a positive outlet for that energy.
And it’s not just burning off energy. One of the benefits is that outdoor physical activity reduces negative behaviors related to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and emotional outbursts⁴.
Daredevil Approved Zone
Kids with ADHD sometimes have the reputation for being “daredevils” or “tornados” referring to adventure-seeking and sometimes destructive actions. Overflowing energy combined with impulsivity means kids with ADHD struggle to control their bodies or even predict potential outcomes of actions5. Outdoor play offers the gift of physical space! There are no walls to bounce off or glass items to break. Meaning kids with ADHD literally have the space to explore without bumping into objects or consequences. It’s an added bonus that sand and leaves provide padded crash zones to welcome the big daredevil moves that have been banned from your living room.
In fact, kids with ADHD need the opportunity for risky play. Practice and guidance during the early years builds safety awareness to prevent serious injury later in life. This is particularly helpful when adults guide kids through outdoor play with the right amount of risk.
Reboot the Ability to Focus
Most of the time, kids with ADHD have to work extra hard to slow their brains enough to focus. Especially for tasks that feel boring or in environments filled with distractions.
And eventually, the brain grows fatigued from working so hard to pay attention.
This is called attention fatigue. And it makes it hard for kids with ADHD to focus.
This is why it’s harder to focus at the end of the day. Notably, this attentional fatigue happens more quickly for kids with ADHD. Plus, it takes longer for them to recover the ability to focus. Which translates into nightmare homework sessions at home (we know you’ve been there!).
In the outdoors, attention happens more automatically, allowing kids to recover from the work it takes to pay attention to what doesn’t feel interesting. The neat part is this break from focusing is restorative⁶. You can think of outdoor play as a mini-vacation from the daily grind of a brain working hard to focus.
Meaning that after outdoor play, the brain has more capacity for focused attention
Sensory Oasis for More Automatic Focus
Nature helps promote the ideal calm yet alert state for learning. In fact, the sensory environment of nature reduces your child’s anxiety and their effort to focus ⁶.
In a typical indoor environment, the brain is also busy trying to filter out unneeded information. Especially from the senses. This could be the lighting, the noise from other students, or the discomfort of prolonged sitting.
The experience is completely different when you head outdoors. The colors of nature are calming, the grass and trees absorb sound, and the lighting is natural. It’s the perfect sensory setting for focus. And the difference for kids with ADHD is striking.
Instead of spending energy trying to stay still and filter out extra distractions, kids are free to focus on play. In fact, even when given structured tasks, kids with ADHD focus better when in the woods versus in town⁷.
In simple terms, going outside improves performance because the natural environment makes it easier to focus. That’s a big reason why some kids skyrocket their learning during our outdoor sessions compared to a similar activity performed at school or indoor therapy.
Self-Confidence and Freedom
Kids who have a lot of energy hear a lot of “don’t do that” and “please sit still.” And the constant moving, fidgeting, and talking, can make it hard to get things done. This is frustrating for everyone involved — high-energy kids, parents, and teachers.
That frustration is picked up by kids and sometimes contributes to low self-esteem and shame for kids with ADHD.
So it becomes important to find ways to encourage and help high-energy kids feel successful. With nature play, the walls are literally removed and there is ample space for all that energy to fuel adventures and big play. And with true child-led nature play, your kid gets to direct the activity based on their interests and preferences.
They get to celebrate the accomplishment of a good hike, astounding tree climb, or creating a magnificent fort.
It’s the perfect place for a high-energy kid to find adventure, new activities, and open spaces to move to the full delight of their brain, body, and sensory system⁸.
Combining Expertise with Outdoor Play for Big Results for San Francisco Kids with ADHD
With outdoor play, kids are moving and their energy is channeled (and celebrated!) in fun, productive play activities. Even more importantly, there is a lasting effect. Meaning outdoor play time ultimately translates into improved behavior and attention after kids leave the woods.
At Bearfoot OT in San Francisco, CA, we love when kids with big energy walk (or run, skip, flip) into our practice. No session or kid feels contained by walls, tabletop activities, or all the noisy indoor distractions. This means kids with ADHD and tons of energy leave feeling calm, focused, and celebrated.
Follow along here to get outdoor play ideas and up-to-date information on our San Francisco outdoor OT services.
Love research? We do too! Check out the resources below!
Kuo FE, Taylor AF. A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health. 2004;94(9):1580-1586. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/
Gawrilow C, Kühnhausen J, Schmid J, Stadler G. Hyperactivity and Motoric Activity in ADHD: Characterization, Assessment, and Intervention. Front Psychiatry. 2014;5:171. Published 2014 Nov 28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4246670/
Jennifer I. Gapin, Jennifer L. Etnier, Parental perceptions of the effects of exercise on behavior in children and adolescents with ADHD, Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2014; 3( 4): 320-325. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254613000240
Di Carmine F., Berto, R. (2020). Contact with Nature can help ADHD children to cope with their symptoms. The state of the evidence and future directions fr research.Visions for Sustainability,15,24-34. https://www.ojs.unito.it/index.php/visions/article/view/4883/4505
Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Coping with add: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/00139160121972864
van den Berg, A.E. and van den Berg, C.G. (2011), A comparison of children with ADHD in a natural and built setting. Child: Care, Health and Development, 37: 430-439. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2214.2010.01172.x