How Playing Video Games Can Improve Attention

The recent announcement of an FDA approved video game to improve attention received a great deal of press, representing an acknowledgment that the use of technology to improve attention and executive-functioning skills is here to stay. Akili’s EndeavorRx is an action game experience that can improve attention.  Parents of children with attention problems have consistently observed how readily their kids can remain focused, persistent, and fully engaged while playing their favorite video games. As a result, many of them would argue that their kids couldn’t possibly have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder because of their ability to remain so focused during gameplay. Unfortunately, that is not true. Most daily activities are not experienced with high levels of stimulation, interactivity, and changing nature that is seen in video games.

However, it is possible to leverage children’s interest in gameplay to improve attention and executive functioning. One way is to use games as teaching tools, as we do on LearningWorks LIVE. In addition, parents can also help their kids recognize the attention skills they use in gameplay and learn how to apply them in other areas of their lives through other strategies. 

We have developed a set of strategies that parallel some of the activities of video games to improve real-world attention:

Tell a cooperative story. This technique is best used for children under the age of 10. Play a story-building game with your child. Provide a starting point, then you and the child take turns adding sentences to the story. This activity is good to practice focusing skills because each person has to retell the story from the beginning for every turn before adding a new line. Instead of trying to remember exactly what has been said, it is often more effective to paraphrase what was told in order to further the understanding of the unfolding narrative. 

Play games or other activities that require repetition or description. Games such as Simon Says, Memory, and card games require sustained attention and practice memory skills.  Card games in which players need to observe and remember what has been discarded or held in someone’s hand can be very good practice for sustained attention and working memory. Verbally reinforce the child’s efforts in these games and encourage him to articulate the strategies that helped him be successful.  

Encourage your child to participate in activities that require full attention. For example, have him play catcher, pitcher, or first base in baseball, as these positions require players who are able to sustain their attention more than those in the outfield.  In music, he could be encouraged to play instruments that are a regular part of the band or orchestra, rather than something such as cymbals, which are rarely used.  Helping him to recognize the differences in necessary attention and involving him in activities requiring higher levels of attention could increase his choices as he matures.

Play games that require visual scanning and search. Games such as “Find the Difference,” in which two similar but slightly different pictures are provided, can be helpful for sustained attention. Model and/or instruct the child to use a systematic strategy for visual searches on these types of games, as well as with word searches and other visual puzzles. Ask him to describe the “system” he used to solve these puzzles. A great assortment of these games can be found in PlayThinks by Ivan Moscovich. 

Use competition to sustain attention. Challenge the child to see who can fully complete a task first as competition can help children sustain their focus. For instance, have a “race” to see if he can complete a portion of his homework prior to you completing a task such as putting the food away after grocery shopping.  Children with a competitive nature could be encouraged to come up with their own strategies for competing against themselves or others and engage siblings, friends, or other caregivers in these friendly competitions.

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