Video Games & ADHD Kids: Beat Them at Their Own Game

9-21-15 Kulman, Randy HS

Why do kids with ADHD love to play video games so much?   

Video games have ideal characteristics for capturing the attention of kids who struggle to focus. These same characteristics make them ideal tools for teaching and sparking the creativity of kids with ADHD. Video games: 

  • Are multimodal 
  • Offer a wide variety of stimuli 
  • Give clear and immediate feedback 
  • Often require both physical and cognitive involvement 
  • Can be cognitively challenging 

When teachers apply similar techniques in the classroom, kids with ADHD tend to stay engaged, sustain effort, and learn better. 

Unfortunately, the characteristics that make video games so powerful for learning also make them difficult to manage. Video games: 

  • Are hard to quit playing 
  • Make the transition to another activity more difficult (particularly troubling for kids who already have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another)  
  • Often take time away from completing homework and doing the necessary studying for academic success.  

 As kids with ADHD transition from the leisure time of summer to the demands of a new school year, parents may find themselves battling to impose limits on video game play in order to make time for other activities. If you are seeking limit-setting strategies, specific schedules, or tools to restrict access to help in this struggle, read on 


What if we just let kids play – WITH us?  

What if, instead of focusing on setting limits, we embrace the games that kids already play and love and turn their digital game play into opportunities for learning? After all, for many kids, play is often the best avenue for learning. This does not mean parents should give children free access to video games all day long. It simply means that parents should consider getting involved when kids play video games and engage in other types of digital play. It means becoming a co-player, observer, coach, and discussant.  

When we play video games with our children, we give them an opportunity to practice a variety of cognitive and communication skills. As they teach us to play their games (and they often have to do) they practice perspective taking and organizing thoughts. They also develop patience and understanding as their silly, inept parents try to learn the game. Best of all, when children play games with parents it has been shown to improve a sense of connectedness in families 


How to Use Video Games for Skill Improvement 

There is also compelling evidence that video games can improve skills such as reading, fluid intelligence, cognitive flexibility, and selective attention. When we play video games with our kids, they are also more likely to engage in conversations with us and respect the setting of reasonable screen time limits.  

Here are some practical strategies for playing video games with your kids, which will help them begin setting their own internal limits: 

  1. Choose games that are engaging and cognitively challenging. A great source for finding these types of games is LearningWorks for Kids. The archive of games and apps offers reviews and playbooks with guidance for how to engage with and talk to your children about the games they play. 
  1. Find short games that have levels or a clear ending point. This is one of the best ways to set effective limits on gameplay. Many tablet-based games and apps fit this bill. Some short games that practice focusing skills include: Romans from Mars, Super Hexagon, and Harbor Master HD. 
  1. Become a good observer. Particularly for single player games where you might switch back-and-forth between playing, you’ll need to watch how your kids play and later ask questions about how they solved problems and made decisions. If you can, connect game-based decision-making skills that will help kids with ADHD in the real world. 


Setting screen time limits for children with ADHD can be difficult. But when we engage with children in their digital play, we get a chance to see exactly what they are playing and how they are learning from it. Becoming a co-player means you and your child become a team. Rather than sitting on opposite sides of the console, this turns gaming into a process you have more control over, and it changes the battle for limit-setting into a cooperative effort.  

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