Rock Climbing, therapy for kids with ADHD?

I got an email a few weeks ago from a Mom by the name of Sarah. She was seeking advice about outdoor play/activities for children with learning challenges, specifically ADHD. Because I have little to no experience with this kind of thing I invited her to write up her experience in hopes that other parents might have more advice to share than I did.

If you have a child with a learning challenge or special need and have used the outdoors as a tool, we want to hear from you.(See the bottom of Sarah’s article for more specific questions, or add your own thoughts).

Thanks for sharing your story Sarah, I absolutely love this post. I for one think Michael is a pretty lucky kid.

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This is my firstborn, Michael:

His little fetus self hit me in the gut at twelve weeks pregnant and didn’t stop moving the rest of the pregnancy. At twenty weeks, he kicked the TV controls off my belly. After his birth, he screamed for three months straight.

I stopped comparing him to other kids, or asking for help from other moms a year into the adventure. My son was just—different. Tough, independent, confident, and able to take down a full grocery cart in 2.3 seconds. He climbed out of his car seat before other kids even realized they were in one. (P.S. Duct tape around the straps solved this problem for awhile).

Around his third birthday, he was evaluated for early learning disabilities (including autism and ADHD). Twenty minutes into the evaluation he pulled out every toy, had to be told to go back to his seat fifteen times, ran into the door twice, and spun in a circle for three full minutes… Oh and he tried to set some turtles free. Anyways, after all this, the evaluator scrunched up her face and went, “Yeah. It looks like ADHD.” As if to drive this point home, the kid ran into the concrete block wall and bounced off with a huge smile. Then did it again.

One of her suggestions—find a gross motor activity that allows him to practice his missing executive function skills.

A little bit about Executive Function:

Executive Functions are a group of key cognitive skills, the lack of which is where learning disabilities and ADHD collide. People with ADHD have less executive functioning skills than everyone else, plus, they acquire the little they do have much slower (about thirty percent slower).

The skills themselves are things like: anticipating the future, avoiding repetition of the same mistakes, planning, having a sense of time, paying attention, staying awake, finishing a task, controlling emotions, being able to internalize thoughts, analyzing, organizing information, error correction, and performance in situations where activity is not rehearsed or planned. (Zeigler Dendy, 3)

So when the therapist suggested a gross motor activity that included executive function practice, I immediately thought of climbing.

It made perfect sense that my son’s lack of executive function could be helped by rock climbing. My husband has severe ADHD, even as an adult, and has used rock climbing as part of his coping strategies since he was about eleven. His dirt-bag years in the New River Gorge got him through college. On the rock, he is safe, thoughtful, technical and precise. He is in control of himself and one of the most conscientious climbers I have ever come across. But when he’s in the basement packing his gear, he forgets to pack QUICKDRAWS. OR ROPE. OR ANCHORS. (true stories– I check the gear bags now).

But while it made sense, it was only a theory. Michael, after all, was only three. I couldn’t see climbing having a huge impact on a three-year-old. He’d been out with us before, but nothing focused on him, and especially nothing focused on working through these brain issues.

I decided to take the suggestion and run with it. What could it hurt to try?

Climb On:

The week before his third birthday, I strapped my ten-month-old in the Ergo on my back and *firmly grasping* Michael’s hand, we went to the climbing gym with the sole purpose of a quasi-therapy session.

Note: I would have taken him outside, but we have no safe outdoor climbing near us. Great Falls National Park is our local crag, but he is so impulsive that he will not go climbing there until he’s like…twenty-five. The climbs are all in a gorge along the Potomac River and you belay on ledges above the water. When you fall in the Potomac there, you die. Seriously.

I planned to keep it simple. I had a bag of M and M’s to use as motivation (to put in the holds for him to climb after). After getting the candy, he would sit on the mat for a set amount of time before moving onto another climb.

I went in the very early hours where he would be the least intrusive. And I kept my expectations low. The kid couldn’t listen to me read a book for more than twenty seconds, after all. Even if it was only ten minutes in the gym, it would be something we tried.

We were there two hours. Climbing for two hours.

He furrowed his brow and walked around the edges of the walls until he saw something he liked and pointed it out.

The candy piece went into the hold he was going for, and off he’d go.

Occasionally he had problems focusing on the climb. His eyes would ping back and forth in his head in excitement, and when he got on the wall he couldn’t keep his body from flailing. In those instances I pulled him off the wall and had him jump up and down on the mat in order to regain focus.

He climbed like a boy—all arms, pull-ups and aggro, brah. And he was proud of himself for getting the candy. I didn’t realize until that moment how little opportunity he had in everyday life to be proud of himself for achieving something.

When it came time to sit in between climbs, he sprawled out on the mat and relaxed without any problems. It’s very rare for him to even slow up, let alone stop and be calm. It did my mommy heart good.

In the calm space, I was able to point out the few other climbers in the gym. He normally cannot break out of his own fast paced world to notice other people, but that day he could. And we were able to practice climbing etiquette (no screaming for the most part, no running around, respecting other people’s space).

There was this moment about halfway into it where we were sitting on the bouldering pads just talking in between climbs. I’ve never gotten to just sit and talk with my child before like that.

For two hours my son could operate at a normal speed, be proud of his achievements, and connect in a way he hadn’t been able to before.

The other surprising thing? It lasted. He didn’t get a nap that day, but was still focusing and connecting better than if he had, hours after we left the gym.

Going Forward:

We’ve started changing some things at home. He asks to watch climbing videos on my ipad a lot now—the kid who cannot watch Sesame Street can sit frozen through Chris Sharma climbing videos. His favorites though, are the kids climbing. Anyone in a diaper climbing anything is awesome to him.

We’ve started taking him to the gym more frequently.

Our winter project now includes building a small bouldering wall in our basement for him. I think this might work out really well for “therapy” during those days where he just cannot get a grip on himself.

We’ve found some little baby boulders at a park that he loves to play on.

He asks every single day to go climbing.

And here are my questions to the Outside Mom community:
What other ways can I harness the outdoors and apply them to the way his brain works?
Have you heard anything about types of outdoor therapies that are succesfull with LD/ADHD/ASD children?
How do I help him progress in climbing?

Things I’ve learned about taking two small children to the climbing gym:

  1. Go when no one is around. I mean 10:00 am on a sunny, seventy degree Tuesday type of no one is around.
  2. Make them wear the harness even if you have no plans on putting them on the rope—thinking towards the future AND you can grab them quicker.
  3. Do not have someone with ADHD check the harness you’ve never put on before and say “uhuh” when you ask if it’s on right. It’s not on right. He will tell you this after you get home all proud of yourself. Then he will have no recollection of telling you it was.
  4. Give them something to climb for. We adults climb for something. Kids don’t have much awareness for esoteric reasons why they climb. They do understand candy. I’ve even used my keys. So they climb for candy and shiny objects.
  5. One in the carrier on your back.
  6. Pray everyone is forgiving of your toddler being fascinated with the echo.
  7. Stash snacks in the Ergo and your pockets.
  8. I think this is obvious, but don’t let them anywhere near chalk!
  9. Point out other climbers for them to watch. I did this for the ADHD as I tried teaching him etiquette in a gym and to notice other people. He loved watching—especially the girls!
  10. Don’t get sucked into “two mama?” because two climbs later, the question becomes “three mama?” and you’re like, wait, it’s ONE PIECE OF CANDY per climb. I don’t care how hard it is.
  11. Don’t skip the sitting on the mat quietly part. Even if it wasn’t for the ADHD, I would make him do it, because at some point he will have to take turns climbing.

Works Cited: Zeigler Dendy, Chris A., M.S. Teenagers with ADD and ADHD: A guide for parents and professionals. Betheseda: Woodbine House, 2006. Print.

Article by: Sarah Lemon

33 Comments so far

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  1. I LOVE this article. I love the way Sarah wrote it, and her dedication to helping her son. Thanks for sharing your blog with Sarah today so that we could all read her experience!

  2. Fabulous article. I used to teach rock climbing and found it therapeutic for those with depression, anxiety disorders, marital discord and children with Autism. I have a Masters in Counseling Psychology and think there needs to be more research incorporating outdoor, physical activities into therapy!

    • Lia – I agree, there needs to be more research done. And marital discord eh… you know, I can see that working. I like it!

  3. I am an outdoor mama with a child who has sever Autism and cognitive delay, in addition to ADHD. Being outdoors is everything to him. He cannot attend school successfully and has problems with normal family outings. But outdoors? He is like a different child, it is truly his element. He hikes, canoes, caves and we are about to add climbing to that list! Je needs help doing all of these activities, but we are happy to give him the extra support he needs. I don’t know much about true outdoor therapies, but I do know that being outdoors has done something no amount of therapy or medication could do–they have given him a shot at a meaningful and happy life. I wish I had more advice to offer, but I don’t . We never let his disabilities keep him from trying something new, and we never pay attention to those around us. If we did, we’d never get to leave the house :) We just let him follow his own path. The sky is the limit! I blog about these topics a lot Good luck!

  4. PS, can I link to this post in the future? I have been wanting to write a series of posts about outdoor activities and children with special needs. Thanks!

    • Hiking Mama – I’m so glad you commented! I was going to email you directly and ask for your thoughts. I remembered coming across this post on your blog which first got me sorta thinking about this stuff a few months ago. I loved your comment, sounds like yoru kids are pretty lucky too! And yes, feel free to link to the post.

  5. I think any kind of outdoor activity would be helpful with ADHD specially spending time outside in nature, not just rock climbing.
    Here are some links I have gathered
    ADHD’s Outdoor Cure
    Outdoor Education for Behavior Disordered Students

    Children and Nature Network has also some great info about this

    • Kari – Wow, thanks so much for posting those links! I just spent a healthy chunk of time looking them over, had to finally bookmark them so that I could spend even more time stewing over them later. Fascinating subject.

  6. Natalie

    Fantastic post! Lucky kid to have such loving parents willing to go the extra mile. I have zero experience here, but did recently learn in a documentary that the smell of fresh pine is very therapeutic and calming for people with ADHD (and everyone else, for that matter). Good luck on your journey!

    • Natalie – Thanks for the comment, I agree, lucky kid. Really? Fresh Pine! That’s pretty cool.

  7. Sarah

    Lia Keller, I could write a whole other article on what climbing has done for my marriage, haha. It’s the sport that keeps on giving for my family.

    Hiking mama, I have also noticed how different he is outdoors. We live on an old tobacco farm so he gets plenty of independant outdoor time…but sometimes I’ve wondered if there are just simple things I can direct him towards that will further that impact. I am so grateful he can be outside a lot…otherwise I would go insane! Haha. Like Kari’s link mentioning a twenty minute walk…I can do that! And maybe a directed walk (in addition to regular play) would maximize that benefit. I don’t know, but I will be trying it out this afternoon!

    • Sarah – Hahaa, there you go, your next article: “Better your world one climb at a time” ;)

  8. Great article and great mom! I’ve been a mom for nearly twenty years. I have four kids and a brother who is physical and mentally disabled. I could tell you a thousand stories of how being in nature has saved us in so many ways. Bottom line? We human beings are NOT meant to spend our lives in artificial environments. We are specifically designed to be in nature ALL the time. There are tons of studies showing the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of being in nature. Gardening alleviates depression and just a view of nature out a hospital window helps patients recover faster and require less pain medication. The list goes on and on and on and on……. Every disease, ailment and disorder is a direct result of the degree to which we are disconnected and removed from the natural world. We are of course also affect by the amount of toxins introduced to our food, water and air and let’s not forget… our minds (WiFi, microwaves, etc…)

    There’s an awesome book from the 60’s called “Nature’s Seven Doctors” which says if we were to utilize the gifts of nature as they were intended, it would revolutionize our civilization. I agree whole-heartedly. As a matter of fact, there’s another book I recently read that gives instructions on how to grow food in your garden so that each plant grows specifically for YOUR body’s needs. You germinate the seeds under your tongue for nine minutes, hold them in your hand for 30 seconds, blow your breath upon them, and plant them. Supposedly, if you spend time with your plants, touching them and talking to them, and believe it or not – spitting in the soil, they will understand your body chemistry, toxicity, emotional health and more. The kids and I are planting our garden this way and if nothing else, it’s tons of fun. My six year old especially loves the spitting part. Already my plants look totally different from my kids’ plants. Wild, huh? Anyway… I’ve gone on far too long here, but hopefully there’s something helpful in it and thanks for sharing this really great story!

    • Marlowe – Thanks for the comment, please feel free to go on far to long any time :). I was particularly struck by this part of your comment “Every disease, ailment and disorder is a direct result of the degree to which we are disconnected and removed from the natural world.” I’m going to be thinking about that all night.

      Also, your garden sounds fabulous, that is one gardening method I have never heard of. I’d be interested to know how it turns out!

  9. This is a fascinating story! I wish i had more help for you, but I haven’t had any experience in this area. My only suggestion is that as your son gets older, continue to use the outdoors as the basis for his education. Whatever subject you can incorporate into nature, use it. Wishing you the best!

  10. This is such a beautiful post. I too have a child with severe ADHD. I echo the others who have commented and said that being outdoors does more than any of the therapies we have tried. Our son is different when we’re on a hike or when he’s playing in a natural environment. He’s thoughtful and calm. I’ve also noticed what it does for me. Caring for a child with any disability is stressful and sometimes the stress becomes a new kind of normal. When I make a point to be outside with my son the stress seems to wash away. I’m refreshed. So is he. It’s therapy for both of us!

    • Heather – Thanks for your comment! I love every word of it and I’m so glad you’ve found something that works for BOTH of you. I wonder what it is about the outdoors… Awesome.

  11. I love reading about this! We have very ACTIVE boys and have never thought to try rock climbing. I cant wait to try it for our 13 year old who can ever control his emotions. We still have temper tantrums from him like he is two years old. I wonder if the Rock Climbing will help him to stay focused long enough to realise what is going on around him…will have to find somewhere to see if works.

    We usually go out and about most weekends – to the park, or the beach just so that they can explore and get rid of their excess energy! Love your tips/hints!

    • Lisa – Thanks for the comment. I’d be interested to know if climbing does help in controlling those emotions. That would be great!

  12. I agree just being in nature is great for anyone but for kids with attention deficit I think the key is doing things that require both focus and exercise. I coach a cycling program and the ADHD types get so hyper focused I never have attention issues with them.
    This post reminded me of an article in bicycling I read. I found it online. Very good info and research….I thought these statements summed it up and you can see how this would apply to climbing as well.

    David Conant-Norville, MD, a psychiatrist in Beaverton, Oregon, who specializes in adolescents and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recently surveyed his colleagues about the best and worst sports for athletes with ADHD. The best sports demanded constant physical exertion and a suite of technical movements that engaged brain functions dealing with balance, timing, error correction, decision-making and focus. Cycling, swimming and running are tops. At the bottom are soccer, hockey and baseball. The best sports demanded constant physical exertion and a suite of technical movements that engaged brain functions dealing with balance, timing, error correction, decision-making and focus.” “ADHD is imperfectly named,” says Conant-Norville. “People with the condition don’t have a deficit of attention. They have a problem with attention control during boring or mundane tasks. Which is why the intense focus of cycling is great for someone with ADHD. If you’re moving in the pack in a cycling race, you’re highly focused on other riders around you as well as the road ahead. And you’re constantly thinking about strategy, whether to attack or hang back.”,0

    • Jen – This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing that info, the way he describes the ‘best sports’ I’d say climbing would fit right in there, as would kayaking as long as you never hit a stretch of class I or II. The whole article is very very good, a must read for anyone dealing with or interested in this stuff. The title’s pretty awesome too.

  13. […] Rock Climbing, therapy for ADHD? (I love this article! Thanks to […]

  14. I agree with above — great article and Mom! At Selkirk Outdoor Leadership & Education (SOLE), Inc. we work with various populations, including those with executive function deficits. As such, we have consistently found that experiential learning settings and accompanying activities foster exceptional opportunities to develop these and other differentiated needs. It’s great to know that others are tapping into the same opportunities! Keep up the great work!

  15. Way to go Sarah! As an educational therapist and a mom of an ADD kiddo, activity it key! Many of my lessons with my students are on mini trampolines or while swinging. Always organizing the brain! And aren’t we all kinesthetic by nature?!

  16. stacy

    I really enjoyed this post. I have an eight year old daughter in the process of diagnosis for ADHD. My husband and I really don’t want to medicate. About a month ago we tried rock climbing for fun. She fell in love with it instantly and we’ve noticed a great change in school. It’s hard to tell what the rock climbing impacts exactly and since we put that and some other measures in place at the same time its hard to analyze. But so far we’re going with it and I am trying to research any scientific evidence on executive function and rock climbing.

    • Stacy – Thanks for leaving a comment, I’m so happy rock climbing is working out for your daughter! I wish there was more research on this as well, because after all these comments it sure seems like there has GOT to be something there!

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  18. A couple of books I read recently could be relevant: 1) Boys Adrift; 2) Last Child in the Woods. Both talk about ADHD and outdoors as a cure a lot. relevant for both genders, but for boys especially.

    • George – I’d forgotten about that section in Last Child in the Woods, thanks for the reminder, I’ll have to go re-read that. Also, thanks for the “Boy’s Adrift” suggestion, I had not heard of that, but I’ve got it on the library list now. Thanks!

  19. carla

    This is Very interesting information. I have 6 kids , 2 boys have ADD. I thought the post information that they are 30% slower at developing allot of things like thinking outside themselves an knowing what thoughts to keep internal is dead on with what I was telling my husband that the boys ( now 18 and 15) with ADD seem to “grow up” slower through the teenage years. That they don’t get how to handle parents , when to stop talking because they are just digging a whole bigger for themselves, slower then the boys that don’t have ADD. They do out grow it but it is a slower process that I have to keep reminding myself that as we muddle through being a teenager. When they are little and you are just dealing with lost shoes, coats, not being able to clean anything up, or follow 3 steps of direction that is one thing when they are teenagers you are not there holding their hand to make sure they are safe and to quickly correct mistakes. They are driving, dating, out with friends, it gets scary. I Just keep in mind they are developing all the strategies in life just slower, I find a fairly short leash is a good solution and they never seemed to balk about it too much as long as I am fair. Anyway completely off subject my question I had for someone was . We are looking at possibly buying some land that is timber and over grown for camping , and the kids are so excited about it because they want to have a place to play paintball. :) I am a nervous wreck about it because of the boys not having much for thought to consequences until they are knee deep in it. and I for see lots of injuries. But after reading this I wonder if this is exactly what they need. paintball has the constant exertion discussed, the strategy planning. and depending on if you are playing solo man or team on weather you need to keep just yourself alive in the game or your other team mates alive also. Any thoughts on this?? My main goal in buying the land was to get them out of the house away from electronics just to figure out something else to do. I know they are all creative kids but it seems like these days they never have to be. But maybe this is another reason to do this. , any thoughts? Thanks

    • Sarah

      I’m not totally sure. I would think it’s like any of these activities– inherent risk, big rewards. Being that it’s outside and offer oppurtunity to run around and think quickly, it seems great. My husband is actually a police officer BECAUSE of this (running around, thinking quickly). But with boys, all injuries are possible. Adhd or not. haha.

      And I definitely hear you on the challanges as they grow older.I can’t even let myself think this– but they say unplanned pregnancy is much higher for teens with ADHD because protection requires some forethought! Ack!! Right now, we are struggling with learning empathy. Like not to kill everything. Or push everyone. We’ll worry about babies later right?? Oh dear….

  20. Les Seager

    I have used climbing with teenagers who have trust and relationship issues, and it seemed to be very useful. I am a Ply Therapist and am very interested in developing adventure based play therapy


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