Stories from Pali

Outdoor Education: A Natural Remedy for ADHD by Mark Stein


6.4 million school-aged children in America have been diagnosed with ADHD—alarming numbers that have shown no signs of reverting to the 1 in 20 statistic from the 80’s.

Some experts believe that these numbers may reflect an “over diagnosis” of the neuro-behavioral disorder. Other experts such as Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, author of The A.D.H.D. Explosion: Myths, Medication, found evidence that suggested the increase in reported ADHD symptoms correlated with the implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, which emphasized high standardized testing scores.

Along with a surge in ADHD diagnoses, the heightened stress on academic achievement matches the dwindling hours that children spend outdoors. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the average American child only has 15 minutes of recess during the school day, coupled with spending more time indoors than a prisoner. Knowing that the lack of “green time” ultimately has a negative effect on attention spans, Eliza Minnucci of Vermont decided to apply the concept of a “forest school” to her kindergarteners after being given the OK from her principal. Mixing unstructured play with formal lessons, Eliza taught in a nearby forest every Monday for the school year, no matter the weather. As a result, she discovered her students were much more tenacious, focused and resourceful in coming up with creative solutions. What’s even more notable, is that her students also showed higher test scores than her previous classes.

If kids perform better as a result of being outside, why is it that we don’t use this type of teaching throughout their entire schooling experience? It’s obvious that outdoor time seems to be important in school when children are younger, but begins to dwindle as they get older. Think about this for a moment: in kindergarten, four and five year olds have all of the freedom in the world to choose what they want to do. They can color, draw, explore their surroundings without much direction and are able to develop the skills to think of more than one way of achieving their goals. When kids advance to older grades, they are forced to sit at a desk, learn about topics that don’t necessarily interest them, and then take multiple choice tests that almost pigeon-hole them into a predetermined way of thinking.

How do we create a learning environment that allows children to open their minds to every possibility?

Every Child Succeeds was signed this past December in an effort to reestablish the dream of the No Child Left Behind Act. This new bill will not only work toward the academic success of children in America, placing less of an emphasis on standardized testing, but also provide funding for programs that will create different learning opportunities for students who are unable to perform well in a traditional classroom setting. A slightly less publicized companion bill to the act, No Child Left Inside authorizes funding to help states create environmental education curriculum and outdoor education programs, allowing for a more well-rounded education that includes “hands-on, field-based” learning experiences.

A study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being concluded that after being exposed to nature, children and teens between the ages of five and 18 showed a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms. No matter the age, gender, location (i.e. city, suburb, rural) or severity of the symptoms, subjects of this study experienced less stress, less anxiety and were able to follow directions better. Furthermore, the study also determined that the long term effects of “chronic nature exposure” improved ADHD symptoms that greatly improved school performance.

As Director of Pali Institute, an outdoor education program in Running Springs, CA, I see firsthand how a natural learning environment positively impacts kids from their first step off the bus and their first breath of fresh mountain air. . Regardless of whether or not a child has ADHD, humans aren’t designed to be indoors. It’s in our nature to be outside. The world is so technology-driven, and so afraid of the dangers that the outdoors pose for kids, that spending time enjoying Mother Nature is often overlooked. Humans aren’t meant to be spending 7 to 8 hours a day watching TV or sitting at a computer.

When students are exposed to nature, they are able to think more clearly and even better communicate with their peers because they are away from the distractions of technology. They are in an environment that encourages this “out-of-the-box” thinking that traditional classroom settings suppress.


Combining outdoor time with learning is a natural remedy that can do wonders for the human brain. There are so many distractions that constantly overstimulated the brain, which nature can dispel. With the implementation of Every Student Succeeds and No Child Left Inside, society needs to recognize the benefits that outdoor education can have on the 6.4 million children suffering from ADHD and how it may set them up for success throughout their lives.

Mark Stein is the Director of Pali Institute. In his hometown of Allen, TX, he received his B.S. in Kinesiology and Education from the University of Texas; M.S. in Recreation and Leisure Services from Texas State University, San Marcos.

Mark gained experience directing various programs over 10 summers of camp, including first-year campers, rock climbing, high ropes and team building. He was able to apply this experience to an educational setting at The Outdoor School in Marble Falls, Texas. While there he gained a great appreciation for the process and results that experiential education can yield, as well as the incredible people who dedicate themselves to the experiential philosophy. In his free time, Mark enjoys driving through the mountains, tamales and folk music.