The ADHD Child Can Play
by Gwynn Torres
Creativity Institute Owner
Childhood should be playful. Play is said to be the work of children. But, sometimes, the ability to play becomes strained when children have conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD).
Part of living with a child with ADHD is to understand the special needs of these children in order to maintain a happy and healthy balance. This includes the necessity of selecting the right playthings so playtime activities do not become more stressful by conflicting with what these children can comfortably manage and enjoy. One way we've heard ADHD described is that it's a performance disorder and not a deficiency of knowledge or skill. It is primarily manifested as a set of symptoms that interfere with the ability to focus on a task and get it completed.
Child psychologists and psychiatrists value the importance of play in therapy for children with ADHD. The right types of play allow children to express themselves in ways they can't do otherwise. Play within the right context and with the right supervision can also improve a child's focusing abilities and help him or her to learn the basics of getting along more cooperatively with other children. Medical attention for proper diagnosis and consideration of medication are certainly the core of treatment of ADHD. But in many situations, proper managing of a child's environment and activities can do a lot to keep the symptomatic behavior under control.
A toy doesn't have to be full of moving or electronic parts to stimulate a child's imagination. Children with ADHD often have difficulty with multi-step instructions and have an inability to stay focused on the task at hand. They frequently become frustrated with themselves in these situations. Toys can be very simple and still do a better job of keeping a child focused and entertained as well as giving them an outlet to express their feelings. Two such toy categories are pretend play and art supplies.
The flexibility of these traditional play activities can be as simple or involved as the opportunity permits. So, because these types of play are events of totally variable lengths, a child can complete the activity and feel a sense of accomplishment and build confidence.
Another advantage of pretend play and artistic activities for children with ADHD is that these categories of play allow parents and caregivers to provide positive feedback and reinforcement that is invaluable in keeping the child focused...and invaluable for the child's self esteem.
Children of almost every age enjoy pretend play and benefit from the exploration of feelings that it affords. Dolls and action figures, puppets, costumes and even blocks are all toy categories that allow a child to fantasize and act out situations. Under the right supervision, children with ADHD can learn the value of considering the consequences of their actions. As they decide what happens next in their fantasy, they can get a better understanding of how others react to certain actions. In situations where you can encourage them to finish their story line, you also can help them to get used to following through on a task.
Drama. Dramatic activities such as skits, recitations, puppet shows and simple story telling can let a child concentrate on being a different character for a short time. Put a costume on them and watch how quickly they start getting into character. However, it may take direction from you to keep them focused and enjoying the event.
Costumes need not be elaborate to let a child be another character. It only need be representational. A single feather in a headband, a necktie, scrubs or even just a sign or patch fastened to clothing is enough to let a child jump into another role. Let the child use his or her imagination to help find costume pieces as part of the dramatic play process. And don't restrict them to the costume box. Colanders make great space helmets.
When Sid's children were growing up, they had a "costume closet" with an assortment of coats, brightly colored shirts, hats and accessories such as scarves, belts, wigs and, of course, masks. If an article of clothing became outdated, before disposing of it, they'd consider its costume potential. Putting together a costume for Halloween was always a big event. On top of that, living in New Orleans gives us Mardi Gras as a second costuming event each year.
Playhouses and play tents. Giving a child a space of his or her own is a great way to encourage imaginative pretend play. Whether it's stretching a sheet over dining room chairs to make a house or a purchased indoor or outdoor playhouse or play tent with a theme, a child is free to role play and make up scenarios that could happen in the space.
At The Creativity Institute, we carry several types of playhouses, play tents and tunnels in various themes that include a teepee, castle and military camouflage. We also carry puppet theaters that can double as play stores and other types of play spaces. Our big foam blocks are large enough to make make-believe buildings and tunnels a child can climb over and under. We also have play panels that can be moved around to create an everchanging mix of play environments. This type of pretend play is also conducive to playing with others, offering an opportunity for a child to develop those all-important socialization skills.
Puppet shows. Puppets allow a child to act out many different rolesand have fun with character voices. There are many sources for skits that can be adapted to the puppet stage and even ready-to-perform scripts in your library and on the Web. At The Creativity Institute, we have a section devoted to puppetry with puppetsand puppet theaters. You'll find links to script resources on the Internet and puppeteer tips. To make it easier to get started, we've bundled together puppets and puppet theater packages and even grouped puppet casts with accompanying scripts, ready to perform. Again, your direction will be invaluable in providing enough structure for the event that will let the children have a greater sense of accomplishment and stay interested longer.
Record it. Getting the performances down on tape gives everyone more opportunities to laugh and enjoy it all over again. There's a difference between taping the children playing at creating the performance and "making a movie" of the show, and both are wonderful to watch again and again. Taping the children at play shows their performance, as well as the behind-the-scenes preparation. Making a movie is just a matter of trying to capture what the audience would see. All you have to do is prepare the children for the scene and start and stop the camera at the right times - and move on. You can even start with a title card the children can make for the show - using their own artistic skills.
Dollhouses and activity sets. Playing with dolls and action figures is another valuable opportunity for pretend play. Dollhouses, toy pirate ships, castles, firehouses, farms and other traditional activity sets have the magic to let children get lost in their imaginations. Even the more popular activity sets based on movies and TV shows allow the same opportunities. And don't forget what imaginations can do with boxes, blocks and anything that can become the setting for a creative play session.
Blocks. Toys for children with ADHD should be simple and encourage the use of their imaginations, and one of the most basic toys is blocks. Block play can be great for many ages. From simple stack-up and knock-over fun to imaginative building. Blocks teach problem-solving skills, because a child discovers how stacking and matching can produce different results. They can also become components of pretend play, because a child can fantasize what the structures are. There are also big foam blocks that are almost "life size" and let children create their own fantasy playhouses. These lightweight blocks are so versatile, they can be climbed on or tunneled under. Magnetic blocks and construction sets have pieces that connect in more ways than can conventional plastic snap-together blocks and allow even more imaginative opportunities. We also carry a selection of traditional and colorful wooden blocks.
Blocks, like many traditional toys, have other educational advantages for a child with ADHD. The number of positive outcomes is limitless, so children can continue playing until they've reached a level of personal satisfaction.
Any medium such as crayons, markers, chalk, paint and clay can give a child a wealth of expressive opportunities. Sometimes you may want to suggest a subject idea to get them started. Art supplies are some of the least expensive educational toys you can provide. Gwynn used to bring home old stationery and unused printed samples to give her children a virtually unlimited supply of art paper. And here's something you can try on a big scale. Sid used to get unused paper billboards from the local outdoor company and tack them on his backyard fence, backside out, to give the children blank giant-size panels for murals. The change in scale of their artist's canvas gets them thinking of possibilities in a different perspective and keeps them intrigued for hours. Another way to give structure to art activities is with their own easel. We carry a selection of folding, double-sided and adjustable easels that provide a convenient supply of paper and drawing surfaces.
There are many books that can hold a child's attention. The public library is a great start and your librarian can help you. Garage sales and community book fairs are a great way to build a library of your own.
The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio listed the top toys for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and included, among other things, a magnetic construction set, a tree-house-theme dollhouse play set, a decorate-it-yourself birdfeeder, board games and a simple, basic rubber ball. Oppenheim also suggested the toy general categories of dramatic play and artistic activities.
*The National Institute of Mental Health recommends that if ADHD is suspected, the diagnosis should be made by a professional with training in ADHD. This includes child psychiatrists, psychologists, developmental/behavioral pediatricians, behavioral neurologists and clinical social workers. After ruling out other possible reasons for the child's behavior, the specialist checks the child's school and medical records and talks to teachers and parents who have filled out a behavior rating scale for the child. A diagnosis is made only after all this information has been considered.
© 2005 The Creativity Institute, Inc. Please credit author Gwynn Torres of The Creativity Institute, creativityinstitute.com.