How to Build Social Skills for Life Using Minecraft
Video games, social media, and technology are becoming an increasingly large part of our children’s lives. Digital play is now the most common type of play engaged in by younger children. Recent studies suggest that kids under the age of eight spend about 2.5 hours per day with screen media. For kids five and under, this is more than twice the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Screen time usage increases dramatically as children get older, with teenagers spending nearly 9.5 hours per day in front of screens.
While technology changes quickly, in my experience as a child clinical psychologist, I’ve noticed that one thing hasn’t changed much over the last few years: many of the kids I work with are still loving a nine-year-old video game called Minecraft, even though it is a digital age senior citizen. Particularly my patients who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) feel a special affinity for Minecraft, even as some of their peers choose to move on to other games and technologies.
Many kids affected by autism have found a place for playing Minecraft in a protected environment called Autcraft. Originally developed by Stuart Duncan so his son would have a safe haven for playing Minecraft, Autcraft is a place for kids with autism, ADHD, and other special needs to work together. It is monitored by Duncan and his team of unpaid advisors (although they do appreciate donations to keep it open) who work to help kids communicate and collaborate.
As a part of my clinical work, I have interviewed a number of children affected with ASD about why they love Minecraft. Here are some of the common responses:
In Minecraft, there is a sense that you can go where you want, build whatever you feel like building, and follow your unique set of interests through the game. The openness of Minecraft encourages creativity and taking one’s own path, when in the real world a child on the autism spectrum may be in a constant struggle with rules that don’t make sense to them. Probably the most common statement from children during our interviews is that “you can build anything you want.”
Many kids like the player-led sandbox nature of Minecraft. Their pursuits and activities are not based on a specific quest or set of directions built into the game. While there may be some limits as to the materials that they can acquire and to some of the dangers they may experience, many kids like the opportunity to be in charge. They also recognize the restrictions placed upon them in the game and can enjoy these challenges.
Minecraft is a game where players only get ahead by trying something new. This aspect of Minecraft is particularly good for kids on the spectrum who may be inflexible or anxious about new situations and breaking routine. Because the repercussions of trying something new are not real, many kids are far more willing to experiment, expand their range of interests, and engage in flexible problem solving while playing Minecraft.
After many discussions with kids affected by ASD and ADHD, we decided to organize a small group program in our office using our own Minecraft server. We invited a group of kids diagnosed with ASD and ADHD to play alongside our “gamer guides,” upper-level students and graduates from the University of Rhode Island who understand executive functions and have a passion for playing Minecraft. The gamer guides served as coaches to help the players work on projects together and point out ways in which they were practicing executive-functioning skills such as planning, organization, and flexibility in game play. They also subtly pointed out how these same game-based skills could be applied in the real world.
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In keeping with our mission at LearningWorksforKids, our approach in these sessions was to transform game-based learning into real-world skills. Even though Minecraft is an ideal game for practicing core executive functioning skills, merely playing the game is generally not enough to help kids transfer skills they use in the game to the demands of home, school, and social relationships. Players, not just kids affected by autism and ADHD, often need help in detecting the skills they are using, reflecting on the ways these skills help them in the game and in their real world and connecting these skills to real-world activities.
Parents and educators can use these same techniques to help kids make the most of their play with Minecraft or other video games. Following these three simple steps—detect, reflect, connect—can transform game-based learning into real-world skills. In our Building Skills with Minecraft program, our gamer guides helped the players work on projects together and assisted them in developing collaborative problem-solving skills and self-awareness capacities.
Our gamer guides were alert to what we call “game equivalents,” activities in the game that were analogous to real-world activity. We encourage parents to find real-world opportunities to practice the skills used in Minecraft to improve tasks such as homework completion, organization for school activities, and time management.
We have had a great response to our Building Skills with Minecraft program. Parents have told us how much the kids enjoyed it and that their children are recognizing how they are using executive-functioning skills in the game. Moving forward, we are opening the program to Minecraft players anywhere in the world, so any child can join us from the comfort of their own home. If you’d like to learn more about the program, please visit us here.
Randy Kulman, PhD is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids learningworksforkids.com, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr Kulman 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. Additionally, Dr. Kulman is the author of numerous essays and book chapters on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children. His current research projects include the development of a parent and teacher scale for assessing executive-functioning skills in children and a large survey study examining how children with ADHD and Autism use popular video games and apps. He is an advisor and occasional writer for ADDitude Magazine, Commonsensemedia.org, Toca Boca and also writes columns for Inside ADHD and the South County Independent. He is the author of two books; Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World.
This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life