Can Playing Video Games Improve Attention and Focus?
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
Lewis Odell, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Odell has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
Parents of children with ADHD often face a dilemma when it comes to letting their children play video games. On the one hand, it may be one of the few areas where the children intently focus on an activity, report a sense of accomplishment, and sustain their persistence toward achieving a goal. Conversely, video games can become the primary interest for children with ADHD, and it can be extremely difficult to get them to transition from playing a video game to participating in other activities.
On the upside, video games exercise many of the cognitive skills that help children with ADHD to pay attention and stay on task, such as the immediacy of feedback and the capacity to match challenges to a child’s current expertise. Because video games, apps, and other technologies engage the sustained attention and focus of these children, they can be powerful tools for learning. But unless you know how to choose the best games, limit them appropriately, and find ways to transfer game-based skills into real-world skills, playing video games is unlikely to be very helpful for your child.
The following are some researched-based, creative strategies that can help you to get the most out of your child’s interest in video games:
Play active games.
Choose games such as Kinect Sports Season Two: Tennis. Many games with the new video game consoles require the use of physical exercise and movement. Research shows that physical activity can affect brain chemistry in a positive way, boosting children’s capacity for focus and working memory through the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors), proteins in the brain that can help enhance memory and attention. Consider having your child play these games before he does his homework to increase his ability to attend and focus after gameplay.
Set meaningful limits on the amount of time your kids are involved with digital technologies.
A good rule of thumb for children with ADHD is:
Preschoolers: limited and supervised time only
Elementary school students: 1 – 1.5 hours per day, including television time
Middle school students: 1.5 – 2 hours per day, including television and cell-phone time
High school students: 2 – 2.5 hours per day, with negotiation based upon the use of technology for academic needs
Provide a diverse selection of apps and digital technologies.
If your child loves video games, she might also like to master apps such as Evernote, Dragon Dictation, or Google Drive that could help her with school and attention issues. These types of apps are particularly helpful for children who have problems with organization, planning, or time management skills.
Play action video games.
Games that involve fast-paced decision making such as Plants vs. Zombies 2 have been demonstrated to improve selective attention and the capacity to identify relevant and important details.
Educate yourself about how to choose and use popular technologies.
Websites such as LearningWorks for Kids and Common Sense Media can help you identify the best games and apps to improve executive functions for your child with ADHD.
Learn more about Dr. Odell:
Dr. Odell is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children in which he has developed concepts such as “play diets” and “engamement” to help parents and teachers understand the impact of digital technologies on children. He is the author of Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World: A Guide to Choosing and Using Popular Video Games and Apps to Improve Executive Functioning in Children and Teens.