Nature Canada

Squirrel! Can nature reduce the symptoms of ADHD?

Sherry Nigro

This blog post was written by Nature Canada guest blogger Sherry Nigro, and is the second in a series of blogs on the effect of nature on mental health.

“Squirrel”. Anyone who has a dog knows that this single word will immediately distract them from whatever they were doing.  In fact, a lot of people find that they too, can be easily distracted, impulsive and inattentive, especially if they are tired or stressed.  The consequences can negatively affect academic and job performance, health and safety as well as relationships with others.  For approximately 5% of children and 4% of adults (conservative measures) these are symptoms of a neurodevelopmental illness called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[i].

Did you know that time in natural environments can help reduce inattentiveness and improve concentration?

How does it work

Much has been written about the attention restoration affect that time in nature has, since the theory was proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s. It recognizes that periods of extended concentration (such as working on math problems), over stimulation (for example, urban environments) and even under stimulation, are draining and lead to mental fatigue, which in turn can make one easily distracted and unable to focus on the task at hand. In sharp contrast, being in a natural environment requires no intellectual effort, but provides a wrap-around multi-sensory experience.  And most significant, people feel a sense of awe, of being deeply engaged, of being fascinated by the surroundings, that has the most restorative effect.  Who among us has not looked up into a tree canopy with its dancing shades of green, or been mesmerized by water spilling over rocks, or watched a hardworking ant carry a trophy much bigger than itself, and not felt moved? And in turn, refreshed. Subsequent researchers have validated the findings that time in nature can improve attention as noted in a systematic review by Ohly et al, published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health[ii].

In addition to short term emotional effects that restore attention and focus, long term exposure to nature can affect brain development in children.  In research published earlier this year, Dadvand et al found that children who lived in urban neighbourhoods with “surrounding greenness” had larger volumes of grey and white matter and also showed better working memory and reduced inattention in cognitive testing[iii].

Reducing the symptoms of ADHD

People with ADHD may show behaviours such as daydreaming, being easily distracted from tasks, talking excessively, interrupting others, being unable to sit still, poor attention to detail and difficulty with multitasking[iv]. The burden is significant at a human and social level with estimates suggesting the cost of ADHD in Canada is 7 billion dollars per year[v].

So not surprisingly, researchers have looked at whether time in nature could improve the symptoms of ADHD. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor published strong evidence in the American Journal of Public Health that demonstrated symptoms in children improved, even controlling for residential and individual variables[vi].  Recently, the Lawson Foundation, a philanthropic organization to support the wellbeing of children,  commissioned two systematic literature reviews, one[vii] by the Human Environments Analysis Lab at Western University (lead investigator Dr. Jason Gilliland, child health geographer), and the other by Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist, and Dr. Angela Chen at the University of Victoria[viii] which supported the findings that time in nature improved symptoms of ADHD.  (Note that this is complementary to other treatment options such as medication and cognitive therapy).

Applying this to the real world 

It appears that time in nature can be restorative for children and adults, for those with ADHD and those who feel mentally fatigued.  This resonates for me; how many times has a walk in the woods provided clarity of thinking, better focus, and enhanced problem solving?  But a walk, while a great first step is not the only way to add greenness to our lives.

This is the fun part.  Let your imagination go wild (many people with ADHD are highly creative, spontaneous, and energetic) as you consider ways to incorporate nature in your day.  Consider active transportation through a park, use natural scenes for wall coverings, take a picnic down to the beach.  Consider the greenness of the neighbourhood when finding a new home.  Schools, universities and workplaces can work to “naturalize” their properties with trees and water.  Green walls (with plants, not paint), and rooftop gardens are also ways to reduce mental fatigue through exposure to nature.  Why not share your ideas?

So whether you are trying to make sure your hyperactive 10 year old adjusts to a new school, you are preparing for an exam, or had a heavy few days at work, spend some time to watch the clouds, be amazed by the texture of tree bark, and enjoy the antics of the industrious squirrel in the nearby tree.


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[i] Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC). Understanding ADHD- ADHD Facts- Dispelling the Myths.  Downloaded July 20, 2018 from http://caddac.ca/adhd/understanding-adhd/in-general/facts-stats-myths/

[ii] Heather Ohly, Mathew P. White, Benedict W. Wheeler, Alison Bethel, Obioha C. Ukoumunne, Vasilis Nikolaou & Ruth Garside (2016) Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19:7, 305-343, DOI: 10.1080/10937404.2016.1196155

[iii] Dadvand et al. 2018. The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren. Environmental Health Perspectives.  Downloaded from https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2018/02/EHP1876.

[iv] CADDAC. Understanding ADHD>In General> Symptoms. Downloaded July 20, 2018  http://caddac.ca/adhd/understanding-adhd/in-general/symptoms/

[v] CADDAC. Understanding ADHD>In General>Socioeconomic Costs.  Downloaded July 20, 2018 from http://caddac.ca/adhd/understanding-adhd/in-general/socioeconomic-costs/

[vi]  Kuo, Frances E., Faber Taylor, Andrea.  2004.  A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder:  Evidence from a National Study.  American Journal of Public Health.  2004 September: 94(9): 1580-1586.  Downloaded July 10, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/

[vii] Human Environments Analysis Laboratory. (nd) Children and Nature:  A systematic review.  Downloaded on July 10, 2018 from https://lawson.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Children-Nature-A-Systematic-Review.pdf

[viii] Gifford, R., Chen, A.  2016.  Children and Nature:  What We Know and What We Do Not.  Downloaded on July 10, 2018 from  https://lawson.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Children-and-Nature-What-We-Know-and-What-We-Do-Not.pdf

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