ADHD at Playtime
Finding the right activities
There is no need to seek toys designed specifically for children with ADHD. Our job as parents is to choose toys and activities that are likely to build skills and coping abilities in children with ADHD. The best choices are those that also build on their natural aptitudes and preferences. Which specific games you choose depends on what your child likes to do; this will be the most successful in sustaining her interest. If your child is artistic, choose finger painting or clay for a young child. If she loves cars or trains or horses, pick a few toys that allow building a variety of such objects. As a parent, you can structure the space and time: don’t have too many toys around for distraction, keep noise and other activity to a minimum, give individual attention especially when the child is learning to use the toy.
For example, children with ADHD often enjoy activities that give immediate feedback, are very quick moving, and exciting. This type of experience is most easily available in our current Western culture in a video game. While some researchers believe that video games improve eye-hand coordination, planning skills, and a certain kind of problem solving, few think that children should spend all their time at such activities. Some kinds of video games, when screened for violent and offensive content, can be useful for children with ADHD as a reward for good performance or behavior, or may be made available in limited doses.
Video games should be balanced with large-motor activities which are interesting to the child with ADHD, for example quick-moving individual sports such as rock-climbing (with appropriate safety equipment), sail boarding, and skateboarding. Slower-moving games such as baseball are less appropriate for children with ADHD, unless they are the pitcher or catcher, and much more involved in the game.
Indoor toys should be designed to keep the child interested with quick feedback and short time frames. For example, do not buy the 1,000-piece LEGO set; choose the 30 piece set to start with. Rules for card games should be simple and when playing checkers start with a few rules at first. When a child with ADHD is choosing a game, have two choices rather than 20, which would be too overwhelming.
One idea for using play and parental attention to reward appropriate behavior has been developed by Russell Barkley, Ph.D. in his “special time” concept. Toys such as cooperative games, building blocks, and construction projects are better choices than video games, but your child should get to choose whatever interests him or her. If the chosen activity doesn’t involve you directly, you can comment occasionally about what is happening. In this approach, Dr. Barkley recommends setting aside a regular daily time when you are available to give your full attention to your child for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. During “special time” your child can choose any reasonable activity and you participate as the child requests, such as playing a game, helping with a craft, or cooking. Normal behavioral rules apply, such as not damaging toys, being aggressive, or insulting.
The goal is to have the child finish the activity during a short play session at first. Set up the day so there is little to clean up, but teach the skill of putting away toys when you are done, with everything in its place. The idea is for the child to have fun, but also to learn skills that can carry forward to school and eventually to work.
1. Barkley, R. (2000). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.