Making Friends

Play Therapy Techniques and Games to Try at Home

Many children best express and challenge themselves through play. Using games and activities to encourage growth is the cornerstone of play therapy. Learn how you can teach valuable life skills to children of all ages with these recommended toys and games.

Close up of ADHD child's hand playing chinese checkers by window
Close up of ADHD child's hand playing chinese checkers by window

Child psychiatrists and psychologists have long used play as a therapeutic tool for children with problems such as ADHD, clinical depression, and anxiety disorders. Many children who otherwise have trouble expressing themselves can do so through play therapy.

Additionally, experts believe that parents can use play to help their children achieve impressive gains in attention and social skills. And while the market abounds with expensive and therapeutic toys and games specially designed to help children with ADHD, experts believe many conventional, inexpensive toys — such as Let’s Go Fishin’, Clue, and Chinese Checkers — can be just as beneficial.

Read on to find several of the toys, games, and methods play experts recommend for parents and their children with ADHD .

Ages 4-6: Fantasy Play

Doctor kits, stuffed animals, and action or monster figures enable children to act out roles, situations, and emotions. For children with ADHD, fantasy play is especially important because they may feel isolated and confused due to their inability to effectively communicate their experiences, fears, and concerns. Similarly, children with ADHD tend to be impulsive, rather than anticipatory thinkers; that is, they act on their impulses before considering whether or not it’s a good idea. That’s one reason kids with ADHD so often find themselves “in trouble” or without friends.

When skillfully directed by parents, fantasy play allows children with ADHD to explore new experiences and feelings in a safe context. It also helps them learn to stay with a string of tasks long enough to bring them to a conclusion, as well as consider consequences before acting. Constant practice during play enables children to transfer these skills to real life.

How Parents Can Direct Pretend Play

  • Set time limits. Plan ten-minute play sessions once a day — longer periods run the risk of the child falling out of attention, and the parent becoming frustrated. Use toys as props, and suggest that you make up a story about the toy or figure.
  • Prompt your child. Start with “Once upon a time…” and let your child make up and act out the story. You can even play one of the roles in the fantasy, interacting with your child’s character.
  • Encourage social behaviors. Interact with your child in ways that encourage him to rehearse social behaviors, experience logical consequences and eventually anticipate outcomes. For example, say: “If the girl breaks all her toys, what will she have to play with?” Kids with ADHD are so used to being chastised and can be more responsive to a correction when it’s not directed at them personally.
  • Redirect when necessary. Every time your child veers off track, gently direct her back to the game — for example, say: “I was really interested in that horsey story. Tell me what happens next.”
  • Wrap things up. If the child is not finished with the fantasy as the ten-minute period concludes, prompt the ending by saying things like: “Oh, it’s getting dark. Time for horsey to get ready to go to bed,” or “The boy’s mommy is calling him to come home for dinner now.” Take another minute to finish the story and put away the toys.

After a few months, you’ll probably notice an improvement in your child’s ability to stick with the task. At that point, you can step up the challenge gradually by making the themes increasingly more elaborate and even expand the venue of the game from the playroom floor to the whole house.

Ages 6-10: Rehearsing Lifetime Skills

It’s during the elementary school years that children learn to take turns, play by the rules, handle frustration, failures, and more. These skills carry over to high school and beyond so this time is especially critical for children with ADHD to not fall behind their peers in this domain because it can set the stage for failure in the future.

Kids with ADHD who have difficulty staying on task and struggle with lower frustration tolerances can often find themselves excluded from team sports and cooperative board games that can help them build these critical social skills. Parents can help by taking the place of peers and engaging their children in games that will help them develop more socially acceptable behaviors.

Adapting Games for Children with ADHD

Many popular games can be adapted for kids with ADHD, with rules multiplying and challenges increasing gradually over time. This approach enables kids with ADHD to master challenges in increments, gradually building their capacity to stay with the game, follow complicated rules, and handle frustration and disappointment.

For example, you can break down Milton Bradley’s Let’s Go Fishin’ game into steps:

  • First, encourage your child to just learn how to catch the fish.
  • Once this step is mastered, race to see who can throw out his fishing pole first.
  • Next, add on a cognitive challenge, like who can get four red eights first.
  • Finally, change the game to something more interactive by allowing players to ask each other for cards they might need to complete a set.

The point is that the game grows with and also fosters the child’s ability to maintain more detail.

Simple Board Games for Children with ADHD

The less complicated and more low-tech the game is, the better it works for kids with ADHD. High tech games can be over stimulating, complicated games that end up being too frustrating. The following classic board games can help enhance the social and cognitive skills of kids with ADHD:

MEMORY AND ATTENTION

The Memory Game (Milton Bradley): This simple game helps increase attention span and memory. It requires that players match their cards with others that are turned face down. If you turn a card face up and it doesn’t match your card, you have to put it back face down. The challenge is to remember the cards that have been put back down, so you can pair them with your cards when matches come up. Whoever gets the most matches wins.

How to use it: Gauge your child’s frustration level with this game to see how long you can play while keeping your child’s focus. With younger or less focused children, set up the game so that matching cards are closer together, they’ll be more likely to find a match this way. Gradually increase the challenge by scattering the cards and forcing your child to go farther in the visual field to find a match.

ANTICIPATING CONSEQUENCES

Chinese Checkers: Chinese Checkers works for kids with ADHD because it’s simple, yet it requires a bit of strategy. The challenge is simple; just get your men from this end to that end, but children will learn over time that if they problem solve and think ahead about where they’re going, they can get there a lot faster.

ANTICIPATING SUCCESS AND DEALING WITH FAILURE

Chutes and Ladders (Milton Bradley): Children with ADHD experience increased frustration over anticipating success and dealing with failure. Chutes and Ladders is an excellent way to help kids build frustration tolerance and get over failures quickly. The objective is simple: move the players along a trail toward the top of the board, climbing up ladders or sliding down chutes when you land on them. Frustration can result from landing on a chute and going from leader to loser instantly.

How to use it: Take this opportunity to discuss successes (climbing ladders) and failures (sliding down chutes). Help children practice how to manage failure, and stress the importance of recovering quickly from disappointments.

SOLVING PROBLEMS AND STAYING ORGANIZED

Clue (Milton Bradley): Clue is a crime-solving game where players determine who committed a crime through process of elimination. This game forces children to think about the information they have and don’t have — a real challenge for kids with ADHD. They’ll also learn to use information to solve problems, rather than act on their feelings before thinking about the consequences. Within the safe confines of a game like Clue, children learn quickly that impulsive actions usually are counterproductive. This game also practices organization and prioritization skills.

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