The Best Activities for Kids With ADHD

How to find the ideal sport or activity for your child with ADHD

child jumping rope
Photo: Photograph by Kinzie & Riehm

The markers for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, include difficulty concentrating, trouble following directions, restlessness, and impulsivity -- qualities that can make it hard for a child to participate in some activities. That doesn't mean your child with ADHD can't play sports or pick up an extracurricular, of course, but some choices will be better than others.

The activities that work best for your child will depend on the type of ADHD she has, or her primary symptoms. There are three types of ADHD: primarily inattentive, primarily hyperactive/impulsive, and a combination of both. A child who is mostly inattentive might find the chaos of team sports too overwhelming and loud, while a child with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD may find activities that involve a lot of waiting around (softball or T-ball, for instance) are too tough to handle.

Try Something Active

"Physical activity in general is very beneficial to kids with ADHD," says psychologist Mark Stein, Ph.D., director of the PEARL Clinic (Program to Enhance Attention, Regulation, and Learning) at Seattle Children's Hospital. "I often recommend that they do an aerobic activity three to four times a week. Exercise helps attention, and it improves self-esteem."

Consider Individual Sports

Kids with the hyperactive part of ADHD are going to be drawn to team sports, but the child's impulsivity and lack of focus don't lend themselves to success. Individual sports such as martial arts, wrestling, tennis, and swimming are better choices. And when you're checking out martial arts programs, avoid those that involve a lot of yelling, which can be a little overwhelming for kids, says Heidi Tringali, an occupational therapist with Tringali Occupational Therapy Services in Charlotte. Request a trial session or ask to observe a class before signing up, to make sure that the volume and pace are a good match for your child.

But Don't Push if It Isn't Working

"My son is small for his age, so he is not into sports," says Katherine Slack, whose 9-year-old son has ADHD. "But he loves Cub Scouts. It keeps his attention when we have a den meeting, and he really gets into the activities they have throughout the whole year."

Pay Attention to Timing

Many children with ADHD are about three years behind their peers, emotionally speaking, according to a study from the National Institute of Mental Health, so you may want to sign your child up with a younger group for some activities, if that's an option. Think about medication, if that's part of your routine. Avoid enrolling your child in an activity that happens before she typically takes her meds or as they're wearing off.

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Avoid Chaotic Settings

Your child stands a better chance of success if he can focus on what he's doing -- and crowds of other kids or a loud noise level can make that difficult. Stick to small groups in reasonably controlled settings when you can. "When you have a child with ADHD it's tough, socially," Tringali says. "The quick fix is to put them in something lots of other kids are doing, like baseball or soccer. But you really want to consciously pick the types of friends and the activities that will help your child develop the skills he's working on."

Let Your Child Guide You

After Tami Neumann's 14-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago, she realized that cooking was a great activity for him. It involves organization and learning about foods in general, says Neumann, who lives in Griffith, Indiana. "Yes, the kitchen can be a mess, but this has helped him to be focused and learn how to streamline and organize."

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