Treating ADHD with ‘green play’

Fred McCormick

When Mel Wilson was a middle school science teacher, she noticed her class returned from short trips outside with renewed focus. On days she couldn’t take them out, focus suffered.

Examining a link between “green play” and behavior, Wilson is conducting a study as part of her master’s degree at Montreat College about the impact being outdoors has on children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Wilson, working on an advanced degree in environmental education, has been conducting the research for three years. The results, she said, could provide a safe alternative to medicine in the treatment of ADHD.

The research involves collecting data from 12 to 20 children, ages 7-12. Groups of four will follow 30-minute walks on the greenway system in Montreat with scans that will measure their brain activity. The readings produced will reveal theta/beta ratios, which convey to Wilson whether the walk has been effective in improving focus.

“The ratio tells me how hyperactive the kid is,” she said. “A wide ratio means that the child is going to be looking all over the place, and a narrow ratio means that the child has better control of his or her body movement.”

Wilson first noticed the restorative properties of “green play” as a middle school teacher. But it was not until a short time later, when she and her husband adopted their daughter Sarah, that Wilson began to see the benefits that outdoor activity might have on children with ADHD.

“(Sarah) came to live with us when she was 7, and she had a pretty severe case of ADHD at that time,” Wilson said. “We would have weird instances where we would spend a lot of time outside, specifically on vacations at the beach, and her symptoms would almost completely go away.”

Wilson decided to pursue her master’s degree after two years of staying home with her daughter. The opportunity to explore ways to help children with ADHD appealed to her on multiple levels.

“From a mother’s point of view, there are not many of us that like giving our child stimulant medication every day,” she said. “If we can figure out alternatives that help us reduce that dosage or eliminate it altogether, I think a lot of us are looking for that. As an educator, it’s important because a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that one in every 10 kids has ADHD. Classroom size is typically around 24 kids, so that means that two kids in every class are struggling with this. If I can integrate more time outside to help kids learn, then that is an easy thing.”

Wilson read more than 100 studies during the literature review phase of the study before spending a year and half crafting the project proposal. The work associated with her study, she believes, is more typically associated with dissertation-level study.

Wilson plans to pursue a Ph.D. in a related field once she has completed her thesis. She said that finding ways to use the restorative powers of the outdoors to treat ADHD will be her “life’s work.”

Space is available in the study, Wilson said. Parents can visit and register. Children must be diagnosed with ADHD per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV or V.