By Tara Parker-Pope
New York, NY (October 17, 2008)- Parents of children with attention deficit problems are always looking for new strategies to help their children cope. An interesting new study suggests that spending time in nature may help. A small study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at how the environment influenced a child’s concentration skills. The researchers evaluated 17 children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who all took part in three 20-minute walks in a park, a residential neighborhood and a downtown area.
After each walk, the children were given a standard test called Digit Span Backwards, in which a series of numbers are said aloud and the child recites them backwards. The test is a useful measure of attention and concentration because practice doesn’t improve the score. The order of the walks varied for all the children, and the tester wasn’t aware of which walk the child had just taken.
The study, published in the August issue of The Journal of Attention Disorders, found that children were able to focus better after the “green” walks compared to walks in other settings.
Although the study is small, the data support several earlier studies suggesting that natural settings influence psychological health. In 2004, a survey of parents of 450 children found that “green” outdoor activities reduced A.D.H.D. symptoms more than activities in other settings.
“What this particular study tells us is that the physical environment matters,” said Frances E. Kuo, director of the university’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory. “We don’t know what it is about the park, exactly – the greenness or lack of buildings – that seems to improve attention.”
Dr. Kuo noted that the study used tight controls to make sure that the walks were identical except for the environment. Who the child was with, noise levels, the length of time, the time of day and whether the child was on medication stayed constant.
“If we kept everything else the same, and we just changed the environment, we still saw a measurable difference in children’s symptoms,” Dr. Kuo said. “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.”
Dr. Kuo said more children were initially involved in the study, but logistical problems like weather changes, late arrivals or changes in medication made it difficult to maintain tight control, leaving the study with just 17 children from which to draw conclusions.
Despite the small size, the study is important because it involves an objective test of attention and doesn’t rely on children’s or parents’ impressions. During the walks, all of the children were unmedicated – participants who normally took medications to control their A.D.H.D. symptoms stayed off the drugs on the days of the walks.
The researchers found that a “dose of nature” worked as well or better than a dose of medication on the child’s ability to concentrate. What’s not clear is how long the nature effect can last.
Dr. Kuo said that while there are “hints” exposure to green outdoor settings offers a benefit, the science isn’t advanced enough to give parents a strict formula.
“We can’t say for sure, ‘two hours of outdoor play will get you this many days of good behavior,’ but we can say it’s worth trying,” she said. “We can say that as little as 20 minutes of outdoor exposure could potentially buy you an afternoon or a couple of hours to get homework done.”
Dr. Kuo said it’s notable that parents themselves consistently report benefits for their children from green settings.
“One reason we believe this is that if the effect were short-lived, we don’t think that parents would have so consistently observed it,” she said. “But they do. They report it over and over.”
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