ADHD in the Playground

My very personal introduction to ADHD

‘Without your son being on Ritalin, we cannot accept him in our school.’ These were the words ringing in my head as I left the premises of our local preschool with my 4 year old. That day started me on a journey of discovery. Things are a bit different now 14 years later and more inclusive, but realistically, how does one handle ADHD in the playground?

What is ADHD?

According to the ADHASA (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Sothern Africa), between 8-10% of the South African population have ADD or ADHD. So, if you are a teacher, you are likely to have a few such pupils in your playground today!

Attention deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are mental disorders that affects people of all ages. They can cause disorganization, concentration issues, forgetfulness, restlessness and more.

Children with ADHD/ADD are continuously moving, fidgeting or wiggling. They can be excessively talkative and will frequently interrupt others, seeming not to have even heard them. They are easily distracted and often unable to complete tasks.

So why are playgrounds SO important?

Several studies have highlighted the benefits of outdoor play. It has a significant impact reducing the symptoms of ADHD by raising dopamine and norepinephrine baseline levels in the brain.

An active kid is a healthy kid. Playing outside allows children with ADHD to move their bodies and express their liveliness in a more suitable setting. The gentle breeze of wind against the skin, the sound of trees swaying and leaves rustling can have a calming effect on them.

The swings, monkey bars, and jungle gyms help children improve coordination and maximize flexibility. And as we all know, all that activity brings better sleep – exactly what the doctor ordered!

Children are also in a perfect environment to practice their interpersonal skills — taking turns, problem-solving, thinking for themselves, and respecting other children’s space.

But how do I then manage my playground with ADHD children?

Children with ADHD face many obstacles. Most are socially immature, which, on the playground, translates to easily hurt feelings, tantrums, aggressive behaviour, and disobedience. Yet, these potential situations can be overcome if we use the right tools. If you are playground problems, try out these ideas:

  1. Go over the rules. Remind the children about what you consider appropriate play. Be specific. “Walk in front of the swings, not in back.” Children with ADHD often determine rules by testing things out, so explain the rules up front.
  2. Be ready to switch gears. E.g. if a particular child is impulsive and impatient, waiting on a crowded line for the slide may trigger a tantrum. Clue in to this before there’s a problem, and suggest a detour to the swings.
  3. Use positive language. Say, “Wait your turn,” instead of, “Don’t push.” It’s easier for an ADHD child to practice a new, desired behaviour than to stop practicing an undesired one.
  4. Talk about tantrums. Warn the children about the consequences of throwing tantrums in the playground. You might say, “If it becomes too hard to stay calm, we’ll have to go to a time out area.”
  5. Praise good behaviour. Keep your eyes peeled for positive behaviour.  When you see it, commend it ‘Jonathan, you were amazing today when you waited your turn for a swing…’.
  6. Prepare for ending. Children with ADHD often have difficulty transitioning to new tasks, including going back to the classroom. So remind them when they are let out how long they have to play. A few minutes before end of outside playtime time, warn the children that it’s almost time to head inside.
  7. Offer an incentive. Announce a fun activity that will happen just after playtime outdoors. Perhaps adapt your daily schedule to make it something that is greatly anticipated e.g. music time.
  8. Don’t leave outdoor playtime for the difficult time of day. Sometimes we get tempted to try and push all the ‘schoolwork’ in when the children are most attentive and in their best mood. Try to strike a balance. They also need outdoor playtime when they are better able to listen, handle stress, follow directions, and enjoy themselves. Even now, I try to ensure my teenage son has good exercise early on in his day and some fun free-time. The structured work always goes better on such days!

Focus on the positive…

When looking at literature, the focus is often on the negative symptoms of ADHD. These children also have many positive traits and many of these kids can be both creatively and intellectually talented.

In ending off, I wanted to give you some handles on how to use your unstructured outdoor play time to capitalise on these great qualities:

Fantasy play:

Children with ADHD can be wonderfully creative. The child who is engrossed in daydreams and has several thoughts at once, can also be an expert problem-solver, a spring of ideas, or an original artist.

Though children with ADHD can be easily side tracked, similarly, they can offer a fresh perspective and pick up on things that others have failed to notice.

Provide outdoor activity areas that enable their imagination to run…fantasy play toys are a great idea. Give them some dress-up items to play firemen on the jungle gym or race-car driver zooming around the playground.


Children with ADHD consider many options at once and are therefore less rigid in their thinking and more open to try new things that other children might avoid.

Try some fresh playground ideas with some new challenges to try out or move your equipment around for a fresh perspective. See if reading may happen better on the jungle gym. I know we practised all out sight-words while jumping on the trampoline or hanging upside-down from monkey bars (don’t ask me how that seemed better!)

When outside, children with ADHD can do as they please without having to conform to set rules and sit still. Being free can be liberating because when in the playground, the possibilities are endless.

They have the permission to be an explorer, a world-class sprinter, a playful pirate or the captain of the ‘Starship Enterprise’. These vents can help to ease hyperactivity and impulsivity too.

Eagerness and Spontaneity:

With lively and bouncy personalities, children with ADHD are full of energy and unpredictable – they’re a breath of fresh air. In the outdoors, you only often has to spark an idea and they are off on a new adventure…

If the eagerness becomes just too much, swings can be very calming in their rhythmic movement and the perfect place to ‘time out’ a brain that is overstimulated.

Get up-and-go Determination:

Children with ADHD are often the first to volunteer to try something new on the playground or be determined to master a skill. Use this enthusiasm, passion and drive to make your playground a place of discovery, laughter, learning and enjoyment.

I would encourage you to think outside the box and not have the situation of a dejected parent like me 14 years ago. You do have the capability and skills to cope with these precious children and set them on the path for a lifetime of success.

I am right behind you!

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