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Is Free Play a Natural Treatment for ADHD?

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I once worked with a little boy who couldn’t stop moving. Ever.

While you might have an image of a foot-tapping, conversation-interrupting little boy in your head right now, this little kid—let’s call him “John”—was so much more than that. He was constantly in motion. He couldn’t stop talking. He almost never waited for the teacher to call on him before blurting out answers. Most of those answers were incorrect, because, you guessed it, he didn’t really think about the questions before crafting the answers. He just said whatever popped into his head.

John was a force on the playground. He played hard and fast, no matter the game. Pirates? He took on the role of Captain Hook with enthusiasm. Soccer? He played forward, defense and goalie — sometimes all at once.

John’s energy seemed to have no end, until he crashed each night. “He sleeps like the dead,” his mother told me, over and over again.

His parents were in a constant state of worry. "Was he falling behind in school?" she wondered. "Would he ever slow down? How could he possibly make friends with that kind of behavior?" What his parents didn’t see was that John was well-liked by his peers. They were in awe of his soccer skills. They found him funny and entertaining, a welcome break from the stress of school. While he needed some intervention to decrease his disruptive classroom behavior, he was actually doing just fine.

And yet, when John’s pediatrician suggested a trial of medication, his parents jumped at the chance. Within days, John changed from a bright and enthusiastic learner to a sluggish and muted child. He often complained of feeling “jittery” and “scared” at night. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t play. He was a skeleton of his former self, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

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In a recent New York Times article “A Natural Fix for ADHD,” Richard Friedman makes a case for less medication and more natural treatment of what can only be described as an epidemic.

In 2013, 11 percent of American schoolchildren had been diagnosed with ADHD. In case you’re wondering, that amounts to 6.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed than girls.

Why the high diagnosis rates? Some experts point to increased awareness. Others cite a push from the pharmaceutical industry. And some blame increased amounts of homework and longer school days.

Friedman makes a good point. “I think another social factor that, in part, may be driving the 'epidemic' of ADHD has gone unnoticed: the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school.”

Kids are sitting for longer amounts of time. The expectation is that they will remain attentive, no matter the subject. Sitting is fairly boring in the mind of a child, particularly for a child who craves movement and action. And that business about the video games and digital interaction? I’ve been warning parents about this for years. Kids are plugged in at an alarming rate, and many of those games offer instant gratification, bigger and better things if you just keep playing, and changing scenery and rewards in thirty-second intervals.

Play isn’t just something kids do when they’re bored; play is the business of childhood. It’s work. It’s how they learn, communicate, grow and explore. It’s how they burn off energy and work through difficult feelings and emotions.

Of course it’s difficult to sit still and listen to a boring lesson in class when your brain has been trained to look for rewards and gratification around every corner!

Does this mean that we should cancel school and put an end to technology and video games? Of course not. It means that some kids need a different learning environment and more time to play.

In “The Drugging of the American Boy,” Ryan D’Agostino discusses the dangerous trend of inaccurate diagnosis and overmedication of young boys in America. “The shocking truth,” says D’Agostino, “is that many of these diagnoses are wrong, and that most of these boys are being drugged for no good reason—simply for being boys.”

There is a happy medium in here somewhere for high-energy kids, and it’s up to us to find it.

Play isn’t just something kids do when they’re bored; play is the business of childhood. It’s work. It’s how they learn, communicate, grow and explore. It’s how they burn off energy and work through difficult feelings and emotions. It’s how they find their way in this world. And yet, it is often overlooked.

Kids are being deprived of unstructured playtime right now, and those high-energy kids with big ideas and a lot to say are suffering because of it.

Friedman references a client who “lost his symptoms of ADHD” when he left his restrictive job for a startup that allowed for travel and changes in environment. While ridding the ADHD child of all symptoms simply by changing the environment and keeping things fresh is a lofty goal for a child in school, it does bring up a good point. Some kids need frequent breaks, extra outside time and more room to move and learn with their hands. We have to look at the whole child and account for individual differences as much as possible if we want kids to thrive in the classroom setting.

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Eventually, John’s parents decided that the medication wasn’t the right answer for him and worked closely with classroom teachers to help John find ways to work well in the classroom. With a few modifications, he was back to being the big-hearted kid with even bigger ideas and few good jokes to keep the class entertained.

Bottom line: Medication isn’t always the answer. Sometimes play can really save your soul.

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