ADHD And The Natural Kid


Being a kid is tough nowadays, at least when you compare it to the time when most of us grew up. Recess has been deemed a waste of time and the resulting increased desk (and screen) time has contributed to an astronomically high rate of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses in the United States. The problem compounds as parents are pressured to conform by medicating children—an ultimately dangerous and unsustainable solution.

Though a sizable task to undertake, parents can provide a lifetime edge for their children through holistic and natural methods. Prescription medication for ADHD isn’t the only way, and there is plenty of science supporting the choice to go a more natural route.

What has changed?

We have seen undeniable changes in the potential and even likely trajectory of a child’s health in the last 20 years. According to the CDC, as of 2011, 11% of children in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADHD. That is an increase in diagnosis of 3.2% since 2003. Diagnosis of ADHD has increased by nearly 50% over the last decade.


State-based Prevalence Data of ADHD Diagnosis (2011-2012): Children CURRENTLY diagnosed with ADHD (Centers for Disease Control)

Many of the kids diagnosed with ADHD are subsequently placed on Ritalin or another amphetamine-like stimulant. The CDC reports that most children do not receive the recommended combined treatment plan involving both medication and behavioral therapy. Usually, the child gets the medicine but not the therapy.

So why are we seeing such an increase in diagnoses? Sure, we could say that medical advancement has allowed us to catch ADHD more frequently. But such sky high numbers are mostly localized to the United States. Interestingly, other highly developed nations have not experienced this jump in kids with ADHD. America accounts for 90% of Ritalin usage in the world. We make up 5% of the world population, but for some reason consume five-times more ADHD drugs than the rest of the world combined. What gives?

Consider Free Play

A potential culprit in the skyrocketing diagnoses is a bit of a quandary for parents and teachers alike. The amount of playtime, and most importantly, unstructured playtime, has been on a steady downward trajectory since the 1950s. But in the last 30 years, the amount of playtime kids enjoy per week has plummeted decisively.

Some attribute this decline to increased worry for kids’ safety and the growing demands to perform at earlier ages in school. In this article about the decline in free play and increase in depression and anxiety in children, Peter Gray, professor of psychology at Boston College, discusses some staggering statistics:

Research shows these changes in playtime for kids between 1981 and 1997:


Kids spent 18% more time at school in 1997 than in 1981

145% more time was spent doing school work

Children spent 168% more time shopping with parents

Kids only spent 11 hours a week playing, including time on the computer

85% of mothers in 1997 said that their children spent less time playing outside than they had when they were children

When I look at these numbers, I see a huge potential reason that more and more kids are being labeled ADHD. Such a dramatic increase in desk-time or sit-on-the-couch-time hampers children’s development. When kids are asked to sit still all day, it’s no wonder they sometimes exhibit behavioral issues in the classroom. And with a highly effective stimulant counterpart waiting in the wings to save the day, it makes sense that ADHD diagnosis has been on a swift and steady rise.

The Success of Recess


At Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas school administrators decided to experiment with quadrupling recess time in hopes of creating a more productive classroom culture. The results have been impactful. Teachers report that the children are, “paying better attention in class, they’re following directions better, attempting to learn more independently and solve problems on their own, and there have been fewer disciplinary issues.”

“You start putting 15 minutes of what I call ‘reboot’ into these kids every so often and… it gives the platform for them to be able to function at their best level,” said professor Debbie Rhea, who is working with Eagle Mountain and other schools to improve performance through play.”

While this idea may seem novel here at home, the Fins have known this to be the best recipe for success since the 1960’s. Their model involves a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of classroom time. With ample time out of their chairs, the kids’ brains are turned on, they are confident, they have burned off some energy and they are ready to learn when they return to the classroom.

The good news is that the effects of free play go beyond curbing misdiagnoses for behavioral disorders like ADHD. It simply helps a kid to become the best and most authentic self that they can be. There is an important rider to remember here, the key ingredient for success is that the play really is free or in other words, unstructured.

It stands to reason that a lack of free play and too much time sitting around can lead to a diagnosis of ADHD, when in reality there are other drivers to the behavioral issues at hand. Take the time to consider the true causes of behavioral issues before bringing potentially dangerous stimulants into the mix. In the event that your child is permitted to play to their heart’s content and still exhibits symptoms of ADHD, don’t fret. There are a myriad of other manageable reasons that your child is temporarily experiencing a bit of a behavioral problem.

Figuring out All the Fidgeting

Kids Playing at Recess“Only 1 in 12 children have the core strength and balance that a child would have had in the 1980’s,” says Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. This is due to the lack of time kids have to play outside and leads to children fidgeting in the classroom in order to keep their brains awake- something healthy doses of recess used to do. Movement supports balanced muscles, which in turn maintain a balanced brain and low stress on the nervous system.

Hanscom says, “In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once a week in order to reap the benefits. Therefore, having soccer practice once or twice a week is likely not enough movement for the child to develop a strong sensory system.”

Without a healthy sense of balance and well rounded sensory systems children are simply not prepared to sit for hours and learn.

It’s Not Just Physical

Children learn to manage their emotions, connect to their own self-identified and self-guided interests, make decisions, exert self-control, solve problems, follow rules, make friends and be happy through free play, according to Dr. Gray. Through free play, kids learn to do these things among their peers through direct experience, which creates real knowledge and wisdom.

A lack of free play and movement affects a child’s success in and out of the classroom from a physiological and mental/emotional perspective, as well. The symptoms used to diagnose children today can all be linked to other physical and emotional problems that can in fact be temporary and treatable without the use of pharmaceuticals. A lack of free play is not the only reason that can cause a misdiagnosis, but one that should be considered for the wellbeing of every child.


The criteria for diagnosing ADHD are far-reaching. While some may say that it assists in not missing a diagnosis, it could also be argued that such varied and commonplace symptoms actually increase the risk for misdiagnosis. Here are some common misdiagnoses for ADHD:

Asthma and Allergies

The trouble breathing can interfere with your child’s ability to concentrate.

Food, mold and chemical allergies and sensitivities

These can potentially make it difficult for your kid to concentrate.

Diabetes and Hypoglycemia

The symptoms of both can mimic those of ADHD. The typical breakfast foods that children eat, such as cereal and sugary juices made from concentrate, can cause peaks and valleys in energy and focus.

Ear Infections, Seizures, and Low Visual/Auditory Perception

Any of these issues can cause frustration when learning and affect concentration.

Learning Disorders, Sensory Perception and Immature Neurological Systems

A learning disorder can cause frustration and lead a kid to acting out. Sensory perception and the ability to process information can also affect concentration. It is important to correctly determine whether your child actually has a disability or if their neurological system is simply immature. Late development does not equal underdevelopment.

All of this is to say that there are a number of reasons your child may exhibit ADHD- like symptoms, and that it is crucial to discover the true source of the condition before putting your child on prescription medication.

Chiropractors and occupational therapists are ideal for working with your and your child to discover the root cause of symptoms leading to an ADHD diagnosis. Both practices are based in a holistic approach to health and are widely known for spending ample time with all patients to ensure proper diagnosis and provide appropriate care- naturally.

Kids and Communication

Misdiagnosis happens for a number of reasons but one of your best resources to prevent it is your kid. Your child is a beautiful and evolving being who is learning how to express what they are feeling and experiencing- but they are still learning. The methods and affiliations that we have to communicate our feelings and experiences are limited for children. This does not mean that we can’t rely on them to provide valuable information about their feelings, but that you have to ask them questions based on the knowledge base that they have.

When determining the course to correct the symptoms your child is exhibiting, be sure to eliminate the least severe and most temporary causes first. The best way to do this is to choose a health care provider who knows how to talk to your child and is committed to finding the root cause of the symptoms vs. a health care provider solely interested in just making the symptoms go away. Ritalin is an easy fix that aides concentration, but it is dangerous and does not address the true reason that your child may be struggling.

In Summary, Take Your Time And Seek Out The Root Causes

1. Your child will benefit from free play, sunshine and healthy eating whether they have a potential ADHD diagnosis or not. These things are valuable for physical, mental and emotional health and are the best preventive care that you can provide your child.

2. When facing any diagnosis, ensure that you get to the root cause and do not merely treat symptoms. Only treating symptoms can lead to unnecessary and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals being introduced to your child’s system, and leave the root cause untouched.

For example, if an ADHD diagnosed child is prescribed Ritalin and does not undergo behavioral therapy, their difficulty in focusing, making schedules and controlling impulses only becomes worse underneath the masking of symptoms.

3. Take your time. It is so easy to feel pressured by doctors and teachers to fix the behavioral issues that your child is having. You are understandably frightened at the thought of your child being outcast by other children or performing poorly in school. While the fear, stress and pressure are real, the risk is not as severe as it likely seems.

Regarding those who pressure you about your kids, remember their priorities. A doctor’s priority is to correct symptoms. A teacher’s priority is for her classroom to be harmonious and high-performing. Your priority is to prepare your child for a successful life.

In the grand scheme of things, a few low marks in the first grade will have far lesser of an impact on your child’s overall success and happiness than an incorrect diagnosis and the potential side effects of harmful drugs. You and your child deserve to know what is actually causing the symptoms he or she is experiencing. Do what you can do to help your child by creating a proactive wellness plan, and then choose a healthcare provider that will be a caring partner in your child’s wellness.

Want to read a few great articles about natural health for (supposed) ADHD kids? Check these out!

The Atlantic: Hey Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone!
Outside Online: A Daily Dose of Ecotherapy Eases Stress in Kids
Washington Post: Rethinking Ultra-Safe Playgrounds- Why It’s Time To Bring Back Thrill Provoking Equipment for Kids

Darren Hart

Dr. Darren R. Hart was born and raised in Atascadero and received his education at Atascadero High School, Cal Poly, and Palmer College of Chiropractic. He was inspired to become a chiropractor after a life-saving chiropractic adjustment as a young child. He has been practicing in Atascadero for nearly 20 years. Through his gentle healing touch, Dr. Hart enjoys giving back to others what chiropractic gave to him.