The Real Reason Why Children with ADHD Need Structure and Play

“Your child has ADD? Follow a Routine!” How often have parents of children with ADD heard this message? One of the crucial steps in helping a child manage ADD is implementing structure that can be followed consistently. But how much is too much?  Schedules have proven to be effective but often at the cost of natural free play.  How can parents balance structure and play for their kids?

Why Is Structure Important?

Structure has many purposes for children – including helping a child’s brain develop. Karen Spangenberg, neuropsychologist and author, explains that adults lend their ability to regulate to their children when providing structure.  The prefrontal cortex or the part of the brain that is crucial to decision making, judgment, attention span and impulse control and other executive functioning processes, is underdeveloped in children. “External structures can assist a child’s brain to learn more efficiently, as if they possessed a more mature frontal system,” states Spangenberg. Structures like morning and bedroom routines and homework planners have been proven to be incredibly effective in the development of kids, especially those with attention disorders. It becomes even MORE effective when children are taught to hold themselves responsible for their routines.  In providing structure, adults are teaching their children to self-regulate.

Has Play Lost Its Significance?


Between school, after school activities and community activities, it is easy for free play to be limited or even eliminated from children outside of recess at school.  “Children are less free than they have ever been before,” states Peter Gray, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn.   He attributes the increasing demands of early education and structured extracurricular activities as possible reasons for this change.

This is especially true of children with attention disorders.

Researchers have found that even during free-play periods, preschoolers with ADHD engage in less social, more solitary play than other children.  Dr. Jaak Panskepp, neuroscientist and psychologist at Washington State University, supposes it may be due to medication.  In some cases, psychomotor stimulants have been linked to the reduction of play urges.

Don’t go throwing out the Vyvanse and the Adderall though.

Panskepp does not doubt the role of temperament in diagnosis of ADHD and views stimulants as an effective way to reduce impulsive behaviors. He believes possibly even a preventative tool. “I think it is one of the most important things that children need to grow up well, perhaps even reduce the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD,” he says. Unstructured play is also important for brain development and crucial to learning socialization skills like negotiating, creating alliances, and testing boundaries of fairness.

Instead of Battle, Think Relationship

All children, especially those with attention disorders, need time for play.  This free-play time has a surprising effect on structure. Studies show children are more attentive after spending time in play. It actually helps to reinforce the structure. The Finnish Educational system capitalized on this relationship and these schools have skyrocketed to become some of the best in the Western World. Both structure and play activate parts of the brain promoting prosocial development and executive functioning skills. Parents and caregivers with an informed understanding of both are encouraging the development of the two areas children with ADD have a more difficult time with.

For more information about the Finnish School System or about incorporating structure and play into your child’s life, check the links below. FullerLife is here to help you bring balance to life’s battles.

How to Encourage Free Play

Reliable Routines for Children with ADHD

Contributed by

Angela Blocker , M.A, LMFT Associate

Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC


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Anderson, J. (2016, March 08). What’s causing ADHD to skyrocket in kids? Retrieved March 26, 2016, from

Badt, K. (2013, July). Let Your Child Play: The Answer to ADHD and More, According to Scientists. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from

Gray, P. (2014, September 6). Playing with Children: Should You, and If So, How? Retrieved March 26, 2016, from

Hubbard J., & Newcomb, A. (1991) Initial dyadic peer interaction of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and normal boys. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 19, 179–195.

Panksepp, J., Siviy, S., & Normansell, L. (1984). The psychobiology of play: theoretical and methodological perspectives. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews8(4), 465-492.

Panksepp, J. (2007, May). Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain? Retrieved April 28, 2016, from

Spangenberg Postal, K. (2011, April 11). How Structure Improves Your Child’s Brain. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from

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