ADD and the benefits of outdoor play

by | Jun 22, 2022 | Outdoor Play

When I was eight, I would sit down at the counter after school, lay out all my homework, but I wouldn’t get anything done for 2 hours. I wouldn’t fidget or run around, but I’d get distracted, get a snack, start to do homework, and then daydream instead. My mom tried her best to get me to finish so I could play, but there wasn’t much that helped. She eventually took me to the doctor who had my mom fill out a questionnaire, and I was immediately diagnosed with ADD and sent home with a prescription to take every morning. The adjustment to this medication was difficult, but the repercussions were even worse. Now that I knew I had this diagnosis, I was a lot more mindful of what it meant. I was given a diagnosis, but also labeled as “impulsive” and told that it means school is difficult for me. These were some of the things I disliked most about myself and now I was given medicine to fix it. 

This medicine was tricky to figure out, because like most ADD drugs, it is a stimulant, so it provided excitatory reactions to the chemicals in my brain to get things going. Since this drug is a stimulant (like caffeine), we had to be careful about what time I took it. This turned into nights that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep for hours, and waking up early on the weekend so I could take my medicine on time. My life seemed to revolve around the medicine that I didn’t even like! It made me feel like a zombie. I even shared this with my doctor who just changed my prescription to a different medication, which also made me feel lethargic.

         I was (and still am) extremely sensitive to others and how they feel about me. On days that I woke up too late to take my medicine, forgot to take my medicine, or thought I could go without my medicine, my “impulsivity” showed. I made my brother mad at me, which caused my dad to reprimand me, which caused my mom to defend me, resulting in a household up in arms because of something I had done. I felt so guilty. As much as I hated this medicine, it seemed to be what made everyone happy. I eventually became so dependent on this medicine that I would cry if it was too late to take it, or if I forgot to take it. I would crumble in school, and act out at home, because without my medicine, I was “impulsive,” and school was too difficult for me.

         With all of this going on, I found solace in the outdoors, it was my motivation to get things done. As a young millennial, I am fortunate to have had a childhood filled with outdoor play on our six acres in central Massachusetts. I would get lost in the worlds I created outside. The frozen tundra, the lands of the Avatar tribes, the forest in Lord of the Rings. In these worlds, ADD did not exist. I was away from the noise of my own mind. I felt invincible, strong, and capable of anything. It was in these worlds that I learned that I was not impulsive, and school wasn’t that hard. I learned I was able to be in control even on days where I did not take my medicine. I realized that I could sit down and get things done when I was interested and invested in what I was doing.

         The benefits to outdoor play for children with ADD are endless. For example, one source claims that children with ADD and ADHD who spend time outdoors showed improvements in short-term memory, eyesight, stress levels, and mental health resulting in a decrease in depression and anxiety (common among children who struggle with ADD). This source also adds that children are often exposed to two types of attention on a daily basis: 1) directed or task-driven and, 2) fascination. “Too much directed attention can lead to attention fatigue, and results in impulsivity and distractibility. However, being in nature allows a shift to fascination and can allow people to recover from situational inattention and impulsivity.” In other words, nature fosters healing and promotes attention and grounding of self. 

Another source focuses on the benefits of exercise on individuals with ADD and ADHD. They state that exercise turns on the attention system and in general, our executive functioning skills, such as sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention. These are all the skills that individuals with ADD struggle with, which causes impulsivity and affects the way they learn. 

While TimberNook does not have an “exercise focus,” the kids are still in active play throughout the day…lifting heavy materials, running from one end to the other while navigating rocks and roots and trees, climbing trees & boulders, etc. I have been more mindful when watching the children who are labeled as “impulsive” or “tricky” or “difficult” and seen how they are at TimberNook. While at TimberNook, these kids have shown that they are anything but “impulsive,” “tricky,” or “difficult.” I empathize with them as they explore the terrain and play freely, noticing how they also find a level of calm and quietness while they are there. TimberNook has caused me to reflect on my past and realize how much my time outdoors helped my symptoms of ADD, and I can see evidence of it in front of my eyes in the 100+ kids I see weekly.

I was fourteen when I finally decided I was going to stop relying on this medicine to get through the day. My parents nervously supported this decision, and I was able to find motivation to succeed in school through alternative supports, and use my impulsivity to make a quick witty joke or quick decisions in sports. Through my experiences outside, I discovered that, even with all the noise, I could be invincible, strong, and capable of anything, anywhere I was.