Putting “Green Time” to the Test

by Glenn Hefley

At the end of last year, December of 2004, Frances E. Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois published a paper on the influences of “Green Time” and “Green Doses” on the behavior of children with ADHD. The paper was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

There seems to be an overwhelming supply of “natural cures” for ADHD (never mind the point that I’m not even sure a cure would be a good thing), but coming from the sources the paper did, I was more than a little curious.

Kou sums up the paper with this quotation: “The advantage of green outdoor activities was observed among children living in different regions of the United States and among children living in a range of settings, from rural to large city environments…Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”

There are a number of questions going on in the ADHD research community as to why these effects may be so clearly seen, and some questions on the study itself. All of that aside, after reading the paper I thought it was certainly something that could be easily tested in my own home and ”couldn’t hurt”. I use to hear that all the time: “Fresh air can’t hurt you.” Of course, the same source said that about dirt and just about anything else, which might have scuffed us or bruised us.

My son and I play with a group of his friends a rather involved roll-playing game on Saturdays. The game lasts for 9 to 10 hours. We play with 4 to 5 other players every Saturday. The game requires a great deal of concentration, math, planning, logical thought, creative thought, book research, rule interpretation, and creative cheating (poker players call it bluffing, but we don’t need to go there). It is a work out, on many levels.

We normally start the game at noon . Scratch that, we normally arrive to start play at noon . We normally get down to playtime about 1:00 pm or sometimes 2:00 pm , which is as frustrating for the group as it is for me. This is not caused by my son alone; he is not the only one in the group who has ADHD either. This is just the excitement of the game to come, and some tension build up. Despite the fact that all of the players dearly love the game, and look forward to it all week (and have for the last 3 years), it is definitely one of those environments in which they have trouble on many levels. The only thing it really has going for itself is the long-term consistency the game has enjoyed.

After reading this article from Kuo and Taylor, I decided to try a small test of my own. First I started paying attention to the time and the activities of the boys (all the players are boys – doesn’t have to be that way, just seems to work out like that). They are all teenagers between 14 and 17 years of age.

Generally it requires an hour to get to the point where they are ready to play. Up to this point I’ve used number of tactics to get them in game mode and ready. Music is a big part of that “prep time” before the game can really get started. Each player has a “theme” song for the characters they play. There are also “theme songs” for various environments inside the game. These songs are used over and over to set the stage of our game, and it helps focus them, just like playing the same music every day during study time helps focus a child for their home work.

The “prep-time” is an excited barrage of various social interactions. I think the normal word used for it by teachers and some doctors is “bedlam”. The hyper-state minds unfold in a blitz of imaginative energy and investigation, trying to figure out what is going to happen today, what they have from last week that might help, and what everyone else might do. If somehow you can cross the mental images of a daisy opening up to the rising sun, and a mushroom cloud on the other horizon, you can imagine the scene in all its glory.

I pick up most of the boys myself, and we head over to the last boy’s house and take over their living room after setting up the kitchen with pizzas, sodas, vegetables, chips, and other snacks. After keeping the time in mind and some notes on when we were finally able to focus and “start” the game for a few weeks, I started picking up the boys and going to the park for a walk for 15 minutes. This change was not a welcome one, even though I let them know several times before hand.

We have a lake near us with grass and park trees, and doing a quick walk down to the end of the park area and back to the car isn’t really enough for any “exercise” points, nor did they use the time to get started on the game. Most of their time was spent trying to talk me out of this latest health kick of mine.

The result was as predicted by Kou. Within fifteen minutes of getting the snacks and drinks in the door and the tables setup, they were focused and ready to play.

Now, I’m no slouch in the processing area myself. I figured they were still pissed off about being dragged out to the lake on game day, and that was the reason for their “focused” attention. The next week had the same result, and so did the following. Something else that I’ve noticed is that they work better as a team these days, rather than as several separate minds that occasionally see a benefit in working together.

Now, it could still be the fact that they are “subdued” by having to walk, or by the exercise, or any one of a long list of other variables. I’m not a doctor, and this wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a “study”. In addition, Kuo was talking about the time outside in the green being at least an hour, not 15 to 30 minutes like I was doing.

I passed the paper and my thoughts on it to several other friends who also have ADHD or ADD children, and received various responses. All of them were of the thumbs-up variety. One mother of a 9 year old daughter has moved homework time to the park, with glowing reports.

So, in my little world Green Time is a beneficial find that is working very well, even under the pressure of “the game”.

Really, we should have known this or had some hint about it long ago because of summer camp. Now that I look back at it, I’m sure the Green time of summer camp (and Kou’s study even suggested that the more wilderness the setting is, the better) had a great deal to do with the state my son was in when he got home. However, summer camps do so much for them such as social interaction, consistent schedules, planned activities, and so much more, that the fact that they were in the mountains didn’t cross my mind much.

If Kuo’s study is correct and comes into regular practice, there could come a time when Summer Camp becomes the prescription instead of a bottle of medication.