Five 5th-grade students sit or stand facing a sunny pond surrounded by lush greenery, working on a writing task or exploring quietly. Photographed by Greyson Lee
Background Music and Birdsong: ADHD in the Outdoors
by Greyson Lee
After several hours of watching my dad bounce around his home auto shop, channeling restless energy into relentless productivity, he finally pauses to look up car parts long enough for me to catch a conversation with him.
I know by this point that my brother, diagnosed with ADHD before either of us can remember, was not the only one in the family with it. My dad hadn’t said the words before then, but when I bring up my own recent diagnosis, he seems to connect the dots to his own vague learning disability diagnosis from before the language was as common as it is today.
He reflects on a story I’d heard before: he’d been failing a math class in high school, so he and his mom fought for, and won, permission to snake earbuds through his hoodie. He could listen to music in one ear while the teacher lectured, and with this background stimulation humming below the teacher’s lectures, he suddenly felt like he could focus on and understand the content of the class.
Even today, my dad always has music on when he’s doing anything: I hear it in the morning when he’s getting ready for work, it’s always on in his car, it’s on when he gets home from work until he goes to bed, and he keeps it playing over the speakers at his station during his entire work day as well. For him, the background noise seems to be an essential tool in allowing him to function day-to-day with ADHD.
The one place my dad doesn’t seem to need his music, however, is outdoors.
It seems that any time students with ADHD come up in outdoor education, there’s a common refrain: “they do much better here”, and even, “you wouldn’t know they had ADHD if nobody told you”. Struggles in the classroom melt away in the outdoors. Some even note that their students with ADHD tend to thrive in an outdoor learning environment, often finding it even easier to engage than their peers do.
What is it about the outdoors that allows people with ADHD to focus so much better? And how can educators- formal and informal- lean into this phenomena?
Tired of Paying Attention
Environmental Psychologist Stephen Kaplan has proposed the theory of “directed attention”: the kind of attention we have to pay in certain situations, like listening to a lecture, in order to consciously control our focus. Directed attention is a choice and a skill, and it might look like tuning out distracting noises, or ignoring the impulse to check social media. The implication is that this conscious effort will eventually cause “attention fatigue”, making it more and more difficult to continue controlling one’s focus. (Clay, 2001)
In a 2004 study, survey results indicated that time spent outdoors led to reduced ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Their results suggest that green spaces are rich in fascination, the other side of Kaplan’s “attention fatigue” coin: a more natural and undirected form of attention that allows the mind to rest.
In an article for ADDitude Magazine, Dr. Ellen Littman dives into the complex battle between too much and too little stimulation that is often taking place in ADHD brains. Littman explains that in order for brains to be “alert, receptive, and ready to attend and learn”, they need to be stimulated just the right amount; a balance that most brains tend to be able to figure out on their own. (Littman, 2022)
ADHD brains, on the other hand, lack the “reliable coordination of neurotransmitters” that would otherwise allow them to control their own focus. Too little stimulation leads to a kind of boredom often described as “painful” by people with ADHD, and an intense motivation to find some kind of stimulation- often a spike in dopamine- to compensate. Too much stimulation, on the other hand, results in “over-arousal”: feeling overwhelmed, often suddenly, and reacting with irritability, restlessness, or even aggression until able to get away from the commotion and recuperate. (Littman, 2022)
ADHD brains are left either overreacting or under-reacting to stimuli, rarely anywhere in a more “moderate” area that might allow for some control over one’s ability to focus, be receptive, or to engage in learning.
“Chill Lo-Fi Beats”: Regulating Input
A few years ago, a series of YouTube playlists and livestreams by the “Lofi Girl” channel garnered widespread popularity; I remember a few professors using them to fill the silence in the classroom while we worked on some assignment or project.
The appeal is similar to that of white noise machines, water features, and the fan you might leave on in your bedroom at night, even if it’s not too hot: silence can be just as distracting as too much noise. In a casual survey conducted by ADDitude Magazine, one respondent shared that background music helps them maintain focus on a particular thing; “when my environment is quiet,” they said, “my mind wanders to various things and not on what I need to be doing.” (ADDitude Editors, 2022)
Background noise can also be a way of drowning out too much stimulation; another respondent shared that soft, familiar background music “helps [them] focus by removing any background noise (dishwasher, washing machine, people outside or around [them]).” (ADDitude Editors, 2022) Other respondents reported that their need for background noise could vary depending on their task and situation; activities that require high focus might be better paired with silence or very soft music, and “tedious” activities that require less mental focus might be easier with something that distracts the brain.
Of course, everyone’s “ideal” balance of stimulation looks different- but background noise can be a helpful tool in finding it.
It isn’t revolutionary to note the lack of stimulation present in classrooms; in fact, this is openly a design goal. The idea is to lower distractions so students can focus on the only source of stimulation in the room: their teacher.
As a student with ADHD, I had few ways to regulate my balance of stimulation in the classroom. If I needed more stimulation, I could fidget or draw; if I needed less, I could try to go to the bathroom for a break. Oftentimes I just found myself staring glassy-eyed at a wall, my thoughts racing in directions I had no control over, while my teacher droned on pointlessly in the background.
Students are not “cured” of their ADHD when they walk outside, and I still find that certain students need longer transition times, more breaks, more responsive planning, or something to fidget with in order to engage as much as other students can.
But I rarely see those glassy-eyed stares when teaching outdoors, and why would I? There’s so much to look at outdoors, and hardly any walls to zone out onto. Students often fidget, wander, and move their bodies in ways I wouldn’t see in a classroom, but when I finish giving instructions and turn them loose, it’s clear they heard everything they needed to. And I hardly ever see a student need a break from our setting– there are no long bathroom breaks, walking laps elsewhere, or sitting in a hallway to soak in a bit of silence.
There are so many more opportunities for self-regulation outdoors, and the impact on students with ADHD is noticeable. How would their learning experiences be different, and their “academic success” impacted, if their teachers leaned into that?
- ADDitude Editors. (2022, May 20). Background Noise vs. Silence: ADHD Adults on Music & Focus. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/background-noise-sensitivity-adhd-music/
- Clay, R. A. (2001, April). Green is good for you. American Psychological Association, 32(4), 40. https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/greengood
- Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004, September). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Am J Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586. https://doi.org/10.2105%2Fajph.94.9.1580
- Littman, E. (2022, May 18). Brain Stimulation and ADHD / ADD: Cravings and Regulation. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/brain-stimulation-and-adhd-cravings-dependency-and-regulation/
Greyson Lee is an art and outdoor educator finishing his M.Ed at the University of Washington.