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There is a tendency for society to draw a line between work and play, but for many kids this is simply impossible. Studies suggest that time spent playing outdoors increases educational progress, by improving happiness levels and engagement. This is particularly true for those with ADHD, which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports affects more than 1 in 10 American children. People with ADHD have built up energy that they need to release and require extra help to concentrate during lessons. Here’s how physical activities and playtime can help.

Rules and Structure
In the classroom, rules historically have revolved around sitting still and not talking. This is counterintuitive for a child with ADHD, who naturally wants to move around and speak what is on her mind. However, having structure is still important for well-being.

The logic of rules in games is much easier for children to grasp, and a well-designed game can be structured so it is impossible to cheat. Consider a playground obstacle course. If a child knows she has to get from one end to the other in the quickest time, there are clear rules and structures that she can easily follow. Failure to follow will make the exercise pointless.

Rotary playgarden san jose inclusive swings

Seagull swing at Rotary PlayGarden, San Jose | PGAdesign

Playground Design
When designing an ADHD friendly space, it should be organized, without being boring. A playground offers spaces to hide and objects to climb, contributing to the natural curiosity of children. Yet to navigate them requires adherence to rules. For example, you can’t complete the monkey-bars without learning the correct technique. The goal of getting all the way across motivates a child to stick to the rules, since there is no fun in simply walking across.

Two play spaces developed in collaboration with Goric illustrate the combination of uncluttered organization, goal-driven activities, and surprising turns that make a playground well-suited for children with ADHD.

The Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose, designed by the Bay Area landscape architecture firm PGAdesign, is defined by discreet areas for swinging, climbing, and sliding, and includes a range of kinetic and sensory elements to keep children engaged. Much of the equipment on the playground is collaborative. By allowing children to push or propel their friends, Goric’s Integration Carousel, Nest, and spring-loaded Seagull swing help harness the natural energy and creativity of children with ADHD, which is often suppressed in the traditional classroom.

Euroflex Balls at Rotary PlayGarden, San Jose | PGAdesign

Similarly, the grid-like Wallholla, designed by Carve and installed at Jackson Square Park in Boston, combines clear boundaries with challenging obstacles and room for imaginative exploration. The structure encourages purpose-driven activity, but is anything but boring.

Communication and Creativity
Continuing on the theme of collaboration, playgrounds can be designed to require teamwork which will improve communication skills. A classroom-based discussion can lack the same excitement of a physical task, particularly among boys, who are 3 times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

A playground activity is undoubtedly fun, yet it improves those key skills needed to succeed in an academic environment: resilience, open-mindedness and creativity. Children with ADHD are naturally imaginative and able to find solutions to problems, they just need the right environment to develop this side of their personality.

Wallholla by Carve at Jackson Square Park, Boston | Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Boston Children’s Hospital

Play, Learn, Grow
An activity being physical does not mean that it requires any less brain power. In fact, playtime games often requires a child with ADHD to apply their natural curiosity and creativity within a clearly structured activity. This allows them to build the cognitive tools needed to succeed in the classroom.