ADHD Friendly Tips to Support and Encourage Outdoor Nature Play


“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” – Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods

“Nature is a perfect environment for kids with ADHD. It’s an opportunity to explore and play in a way that encourages exercise, creativity, and focus.” – Dr. Mark Bertin, developmental pediatrician and author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD

Research, anecdotal evidence, and the intuition of most of us parents reminds us of the importance of spending time in nature. For adults, for children, and especially for children with ADHD. It is a tool that we have in our ADHD support toolbox that supports our children and also us, when we accompany them outside. Today’s article is focusing on nature play in particular, why it is so great, how it can be challenging, how we can encourage and support it.

“A growing body of research indicates that children and adults who spend time in nature increase their ability to pay attention while lowering their levels of stress and anxiety.” – Karen Sampson CHADD

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ADHD Specific Benefits of Time in Nature

  • Improved Attention: Spending time outside has been shown to improve attention and focus in children with ADHD. The natural environment is less overstimulating and more calming than indoor environments, which can help reduce distractibility and increase mental clarity.
  • Reduced stress: Spending time in nature has a natural calming effect on the body, which can help reduce stress levels. This can be particularly beneficial for children with ADHD, who often experience higher levels of stress and anxiety.
  • Increased physical activity: Outdoor play and activities in nature provide children with opportunities to engage in physical activity, which can help improve mood, calm the nervous system, and reduce symptoms of ADHD.
  • Social skills practice: Group outdoor play provides children with opportunities to interact with their peers and practice social skills in a natural and low pressure environment. Open space with limited movement and noise restrictions can allow for a freedom of play that simply cannot occur indoors.
  • Increased self-esteem: Spending time in nature can provide children with opportunities for mastery and accomplishment, which can help build self-esteem and confidence. Outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and rock climbing can be particularly effective in building self-esteem.
  • Enhanced sensory integration: Children with ADHD may struggle with sensory integration, meaning they have difficulty processing sensory information from the environment. Spending time in nature can provide children with opportunities to engage with different sensory experiences, such as the texture of a tree bark, the sound of a bird call, or the scent of a wildflower. This can help improve sensory processing and integration over time.

Challenges Children and Families are Facing

Now that we have established that time in nature is an amazing support, let’s talk about the fact that it is not always as simple as opening the door. When I surveyed my community on instagram (@behaviourcoach) some of the challenges that parents are facing navigating outdoor fun with their children with ADHD include:

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1. The sensory aspect of outdoor clothing – Scrunchy waterproof fabric, hats, stiff boots, and tight waistbands were all mentioned as challenges.

2. Getting children outside in the first place – Several parents mentioned the transition from comfy cozy indoors to outside as the biggest challenge, many parents shared that once outside their children would always have fun and love being there.

3. SAFETY – This was a big challenge for many families. This included impulsive risk taking, older children running ahead, and children not noticing hazards and dangers.

4. How to balance fun and expectations – One parent described constantly enforcing safety rules leading to limited fun for everyone. The constant reminders that can feel necessary can also feel restrictive for both parents and children.

5. Children not knowing how to manage unstructured play once outside – This was a popular question, how to encourage your child to play freely when they just keep saying, “I am bored.”

Strategies to Support and Encourage Outdoor Play

Sensory Friendly Outdoor Gear

This is a big one! Itchy tags, stiff boots, crinkly noises, rubbery fabric, tight waist bands, sock seams, and restrictive fit are just a small handful of the sensory challenges that I have heard described by both children with ADHD and their parents. Sensory needs are a crucial area to support when we want to encourage outdoor play.

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I like to describe living with ADHD as having no filter sometimes. Essentially, sensory feedback that someone else might be able to turn off and not notice, often can’t be turned off for a child or adult with ADHD. Which means that they will notice every annoying crinkle with every footstep in an intensifying manner. This leads to decreased capacity to regulate emotions, listen to instructions, and most importantly let go and have fun.

When preparing for the outdoors, it is important to remember that children with ADHD can be bothered by the sensory input coming from nature such as heat, rain, snow, and wind AND the sensory input coming from their clothing. Some of the things I look for in children’s outdoor gear is:

  • Flexible soles in shoes
  • Fuzzy inners for boots (especially for the many sock hating ADHDers out there)
  • Soft inner fabric on outerwear (especially in waterproof gear)
  • Natural fabrics as much as possible (merino wool is my love language)
  • Flexibility of movement (not too tight)
  • Functionality (water resistant is not good enough for full rain)
  • Options for legs (often we rain jacket the top and forget about the legs after age 5)

In the photos shared in this blog, my girls are wearing one of my favourite brands, Wheat Kids Clothing. They have generously gifted us the suits that they are wearing in this post and have given me a code to share. I very very rarely accept gifts or partnerships in any form, but I have actually been purchasing from this brand long before I had a platform because their clothes are so good and meet the sensory needs of my children. Check them out here and use my code for non sale items.


Support The Transition

Transitions are hard. This is a mantra that I encourage parents to repeat to themselves every time their child is refusing or not wanting to do something that you know that they will love. Often all that needs to happen is for the transition to pass, movement to happen, for the child to arrive in the new place. Take a breath and remember this.

Here are some ways that I recommend reducing the challenge that is moving from comfy, cozy, known to literally anything else:

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1. Create a regular weekly/daily time to expect outdoor time.

Children love the predictability of a routine, transitions are easier to manage when movement is happening between two regular and expected places or activities. For example, if every monday after school is park day rain or shine your child will hop in your car already anticipating outdoor time. Whereas if you spring an unexpected park trip on a day that they were eagerly anticipating reading a new book they signed out during library time you are faced with cognitive flexibility challenges and it will be much harder to move through the transition to the park.

2. Offer choices of location and activity.

A common trigger for both parents and children navigating ADHD is a desire to be in control. If you as the parent made the decision to spend time outdoors, try providing your child an opportunity to feel a sense of control by choosing the location or the outdoor activity. This regaining of control will help boost your child’s motivation to get out the door and to their location/activity of choice.

3. Set small goals

Often just starting and transitioning is the hardest part of the entire getting outside adventure. Setting a goal with your child that feels small and manageable can be less overwhelming by stating that you are going on a 5 hour trip that may take over the whole day. Instead start with, we are going to the park to check out the playground, then we will decide what feels good to do next.

4. Pair a preferred task to your offer if outdoors is non-preferred

If you have an indoor loving kid I recommend presenting outdoor time as a part of a larger day long schedule. Make sure that you can show lots of time indoors doing preferred activities alongside time outside. I also recommend stating exactly what you plan to do outside to make this time feel concrete and manageable. For example, We are going to this park to play this game and then heading back home.

Set Expectations Clearly for Safety and Behaviour

I recommend setting clear expectations and boundaries before starting play. My favourite strategies for expectations are to keep it simple, prioritize safety (both emotional and physical), and get them to repeat back to you. These are the core areas I set expectations around:

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  • Safety hazards: Point out bodies of water, drop offs, poison ivy, sharp rocks, and more. If they have to be avoided completely, state that, if they are allowed with a parent state that. It is best if hazards have clear expectations from the get go that don’t change.
  • Zone of play: Set physical landmarks to create a zone of play. I also have a standard expectation that they must be able to see me, because if they can’t, I can’t see them.
  • Social expectations: If you have a group of kids and you have any social goals or expectations set them first. Eg. All kids are offered the opportunity to join group games or have independent time (no excluding children that want to join), game rules are created together (no one child controls play), etc.
  • “In case of” Expectations: Sometimes children will have certain go to impulsive situations that they end up in. For example, some kids are water magnets. Consider setting expectations around what will happen if they fall into water, get muddy, etc. For my family, unless it is dangerously cold then if they get wet they play wet.

Start Outdoor Time with Structure

Alongside transitions, getting started and getting into play is often the hardest part. Many children take time to adjust to a new environment, new groups of children, and to transition into imaginative play. For this reason I recommend starting outdoor outings with structure. This could be an activity like a scavenger hunt, a nature walk, and building fairy houses or a game like hide and seek, tag, or I-spy. Even starting at a playground and then moving to a more open space can work well. Knowing what is expected can start the transition into play and from there imaginative and creative nature play can flow.

Set Realistic and Achievable Goals and Expectations as a Parent

Finally let’s end by remembering that nature play is a skill and as a parent setting goals for your family that meet the age, stage, and interest needs of your child is key. As much as the idyllic videos of kids free playing in nature on social media can look beautiful and inviting, it is important to remember that independent, imaginative nature play is a skill that builds with practice. Additionally it is important to be aware of your child’s unique sensory needs and behavioural triggers to help support success.

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A muddy nature outing might not be the best first exposure to nature free play for a child that struggles with the sensation of being dirty or slippery mud.

The best way to encourage nature play is to start with short positive exposure trips into nature spaces with concrete activities to engage in. From there, modeling imaginative or adventurous play and then slowly stepping back is a great next step. I also recommend pairing your children with peer nature experts. Kids make the best play leaders, find a family that spends lots of time outdoors and ask to tag along on a short day activity and let your kids be inspired by their peers.

Bonus Tip: Leave While Things are Going Well

This is one of my golden rules, always try to end on a positive note. The final taste of something we want to repeat is important. Find a window when things are still good, but also winding down and then close the time outdoors. Leave your kids wanting more to support the next transition.

Phew this was a longer one, thank you for sticking with me. Supporting and encouraging my children to play in nature is one of my great loves of parenthood. I hope this article helps you to spend time outside with your children.

Resources to Explore

Green Time for ADHD by Karen Sampson

Green Time for ADHD

Never Underestimate the Healing Power of Nature by Elizabeth Broadbent

Never Underestimate the Healing Power of Mother Nature

A comparison of children with ADHD in a natural and built setting by A.E va den Berg

Read Article

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