Do Fidget Spinners Actually Help Kids Focus?

The other day at my clinical practice, four kids in a row arrived with fidget spinners and proudly showed them off to me. They told me that everyone was taking them to school and that they are a toy to help with focus, although that was clearly not the allure. They demonstrated fidget-spinner tricks and talked about how much fun they have been having with their new toys.

Being a child psychologist puts me in a good position to identify children’s trends before they are obvious to most people (I could tell Minecraft was going to be huge months before most adults). But I know I don’t need to tell you about this fidget-spinner fad: It seems as if these toys are in every store and in every child’s hands.

Fidget spinners are made to help kids with ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism spectrum disorder focus, aren’t they? As a child clinical psychologist who works with many kids affected by ADHD, autism and learning difficulties, I am familiar with many of the movement strategies that help kids with attention issues. Opportunities to stand, move around the classroom, chew gum, sit on a yoga ball, or have a squeeze ball or smooth rock to roll around in your hand are extremely beneficial. But until a couple months ago, I had never heard of a fidget spinner.

Little child, boy, playing with two fidget spinner toys

A kid’s perspective on fidget spinners

So I consulted with an expert, my 10-year-old niece Keira. Keira is a fourth-grade student with a wry sense of humor who often understands adults better than they understand themselves, and she has a critical eye for what her classmates are doing. Keira’s take is that fidget spinners can be fun because “they occupy you so that you are not bored.” She says that when she’s doing homework, fidget spinners make it better “because you’re doing something that you actually like to do even if you’re a little bored with your homework.” But while many of Keira’s classmates say that fidget spinners help them focus, she observes that when they use it like a toy to do tricks, they’re aren’t actually paying attention to the teacher or doing their work. However, she also noted that playing with her fidget spinner made a long drive home from her mother’s birthday party go more quickly.

Being a big kid myself, I enjoy things such as comic books, playing outside and screen time. So I ordered a fidget spinner and a fidget cube from Amazon to try them for myself. There were an incredible number of choices for both the fidget spinners and the cubes, as well as a whole variety of other types of fidget toys. To see if they really do help with focus, I started playing with them as I prepared to write this article.

Testing out fidget spinners and fidget cubes

The first thing I observed is that it’s really hard to write, type or even dictate if you are holding a fidget spinner in your hand. I found the fidget spinner to be something I really needed to pay attention to visually. The fidget spinner has a tactile/sensory component, in that the weighting and balance are remarkable. Playing with the fidget spinner required my full focus and visual attention, and I did not master fidget-spinner tricks such as being able to spin it with my thumb or using only one hand.

Playing with the fidget spinner required my full focus and visual attention.

On the other hand, the fidget cube was something I was able to hold in my hand and play with while engaged in other activities and required very little visual attention. I could probably listen to a lecture and concentrate while holding a fidget cube in my other hand. It wouldn’t do me much good if I were typing with two hands, but if I simply needed to sit back and listen to something or even hand-write some notes I might be able to do it.

While I’m rather skeptical about whether fidget spinners really help kids improve their focus across tasks, I wonder whether they might be useful for enhancing specific types of concentration or reducing stress. Viewing fidget spinners as a fun, inexpensive toy that entertains your child is the best advice I can give parents. To learn more and determine if there are really any cognitive or social/emotional benefit to these toys, I am diving into the scientific studies on these devices and other fidget tools. You can see the preliminary results of my research in another article I wrote, Do Fidget Spinners Really Help?

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.

How Your Kid’s Favorite Screen Activities Can Transform Into Engaging Hobbies This Summer Break

Kids love summer vacation: no school and more free time. It often means more time on screens, too, which leads many parents to wonder: Is there a way to transform kids’ screen-based interests into off-screen hobbies? The answer is yes — 21st-century kids are already using their screen time to discover and redefine their personal interests. A few examples:

  • I routinely meet kids in my clinical practice who love to cook. When asked how they developed this interest, they cite cooking shows on television such as Top Chef and Master Chef Jr.
  • Hundreds of kids who love the video game Minecraft have reported an interest in architecture, history, geology and physics. Minecraft also expands expertise in areas such as mathematics, coding and creating videos.
  • Many kids use DIY (Do It Yourself) videos to teach themselves skills in construction, web design and art.

Summer can be a time to help your kids find their passions. You can help your kids recognize that many of the most important things they need to learn in life won’t occur in school but instead through their own exploration.

The key requirements for developing a hobby

In order for kids to develop a new hobby or interest they need:

  • 1. some degree of inherent enthusiasm
  • 2. time to spend developing and exploring (which summer vacation provides)
  • 3. access to the tools and activities that support a new hobby and
  • 4. adults who are actively involved in nurturing alternative interests by driving, funding, participating and encouraging new hobbies.

Transforming a child’s screen-based interests into a new activity or hobby immediately starts with some built-in enthusiasm for the subject, as kids are already exploring a topic in their technology use. It’s also a way to catch your kids where they already are, rather than trying to get them engaged in something you think would be good for them. You can look at the games, apps, technologies and videos in which your child is already engaged to determine the types of hobbies and interest that could be expanded. In order to do this effectively, you’ll need to spend some time observing and learning about the technologies your child loves. This process may very quickly improve your communication about what your child is doing with media.

You might also want to find games, apps and technologies that fit into an emerging interest of your child. For example, if your child has expressed an interest in history, you might search for games that can teach history as part of game play such as Civilization 5 or Ultimate General:Civil War. Sports or dance games such as Fifa 17 or Toca Dance could prompt a genuine interest in soccer or dancing.

It’s got to be fun

In order for kids to use their screen time to develop other interests, it’s got to be fun! The key is for parents to be able to guide their kids toward technologies, apps and games that are engaging for them but can lead them to expand upon an interest. You might want to do research on websites such as LearningWorks for Kids or Common Sense Media to find media and technologies that can support new hobbies and interests for kids.

Here are some activities that are well-suited for leveraging screen-based time into new hobbies and interests. We have given you suggestions for specific games, media and apps as well as how you might use them to nurture these interests and hobbies.

Cooking. Learning how to cook and making new recipes is a great activity for a rainy summer day. Have your child plan for and cook dinner for the family. Learn new recipes for kids’ favorites such chicken nuggets, pizza, and mac and cheese. Check out these techs to foster this hobby:

Animals and Nature. Many kids love animals and enjoy sharing their knowledge about nature with their parents and peers. While they can learn a great deal from going to a zoo or by reading, technology and media offer incredible opportunities to learn more and becoming an expert. Check out these techs to foster this hobby:

Reading and Writing. Sure this sounds like school, but when kids get to choose what they read and have topics about which they want to write, these can become
compelling hobbies. Technologies can make reading and writing far more engaging than they were even 10 years ago. Some kids love reading and writing at fan fiction sites, where contributors extend storylines on books such as the Twilight series. Kids who might normally be reluctant readers can develop the hobby and love of reading when they are introduced to audiobooks or when they use a tool such as Amazon.com’s whispersync that links a highlighted ebook to an audiobook. Check out these techs to foster this hobby:

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.

5 Ways to Support Your Kid's Passions

Here are a few things that parents can do to promote healthy interests, passion and engagement.

  • 1. Let kids find their own passions. Expose them to many opportunities by doing, watching and reading. Visit libraries, museums and historical locations where they can learn about people who were creators, inventors, leaders and hard workers.
  • 2. Introduce them to people who have an expertise. Find friends and family who truly love their work or their hobbies. Help your child see what someone does in order to pursue a hobby. This could be as simple as taking your child to a friend’s home to see his vegetable garden or as complex as visiting a museum to check out a collection of great artwork from a specific artist.
  • 3. Become familiar with the biographies of famous people and their expertise. For example, read biographies or watch documentaries about U.S. presidents, Nobel Prize winners, great athletes or famous musicians. Help your child to see how these individuals pursued an interest and how they became prominent in their fields.
  • 4. Ensure that your kid’s interest is expandable and flexible. Help make kids’ interests multimodal by finding other toys, books, videos, real-life examples and educational opportunities to expand upon the passion. Don’t let the interest become too narrow. Help kids see how this particular interest can be connected to other parts of the world.
  • 5. Model your own intense interest. If you don’t already have a hobby or a passion, find one that fits you. If necessary, try a few that meet your needs today and can be cultivated when you are not spending all of your time parenting, working and just keeping up with daily life.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids1024_just_say_wow03

6 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Kid's LEGO Sets

Most of the LEGO and similar building toys sold today are packaged in sets with themes such as Minecraft, Star Wars and Batman. These sets are designed with very clear directions for construction, so play becomes goal-oriented, with the intention to build the models as they appear on the box. While this type of play encourages planning, sustained focus, persistence and flexibility, it doesn’t allow complete freedom for kids to play as they choose.

Some experts might rue the loss of creativity and imaginative play that simpler LEGO bricks and other construction toys provide, but it’s possible for kids to use the more directive brick sets as they engage in unstructured creative play. Here are some tips for boosting opportunities for creativity and imagination with themed sets:

  • 1. Encourage storytelling and other forms of creativity after kids have completed the construction of a set. Ask questions about what characters might be doing and the stories that they could tell. Engage in a back-and-forth storytelling game where you add a new part of the plot and your child responds.
  • 2. After the set has been constructed for a while, encourage kids to take it apart and add it to other sets so they can vary their themes and stories. You might choose to buy themed sets that your kid would be more inclined to disassemble.
  • 3. Get kids some large base plates or even a LEGO table on which they can combine a number of sets. This would allow kids to make up stories beyond those that have been encouraged by Hollywood or the characters themselves.
  • 4. Try to prompt kids to think differently and creatively about the LEGO sets and pieces that they own. Many kids have boxes of unassembled pieces from previous kits. Rather than being stuck with the directions that came with the older kits, kids can create something different and new, try the pieces in a different fashion, and view success as making something new rather than completing an “assigned” task.

‘The LEGO Movie’ speaks to the need to go beyond the simple capacity to follow instructions.

  • 5. Watch “The LEGO Movie” together. This movie has a fascinating theme in which only “master builders” can create things without instructions. The evil character in the movie, Lord Business (played by Will Ferrell), does not want any of his themed kits altered in any fashion and restricts the imagination and individuality of construction workers. In many ways, the movie speaks to the need to go beyond the simple capacity to follow instructions and to create on one’s own.
  • 6. Combine and create. One of the primary strategies that the LEGO Learning Institute promotes for improving creativity is combining by coming up with new, surprising and valuable ideas to incorporate existing objects. This might include not only combining sets, but also adding other action figures, toys and objects to the construction design.

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Photo via www.LEGO.com.

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Family Video Game Night

Kids love video games, but parents often have little knowledge of what their kids are doing when they play, or why they even like video games so much. For parents of kids who love video games, playing with them can be a beneficial bonding and learning experience for the whole family. Here are five tips for your family video game night.

  • 1. Start simply

Pick games that you as a parent can master. Short casual video games that you can find on your cell phone or an app that you can use on a tablet device are recommended. If you have younger kids, some of the best games include Toca Life: City and Cut the Rope. If you have older kids, try Angry Birds and Bad Piggies.

  • 2. Become a student of the game

Switch roles with your child and have her teach you something. In addition to helping you learn the game, this will give her an opportunity to work on empathy skills when she recognizes how inept you are at playing her favorite game. It might even teach your child a little patience.

  • 3. Watch and learn

Sit right next to youar child while she plays a console game. This will give you an opportunity to connect with her and spend some quality time together. It will also help you understand what makes video games so exciting and fun for her to play.

  • 4. Talk about what you see

Use this time as a springboard for discussions about learning from games. Ask questions about gameplay strategy, cooperative play and overcoming in-game challenges. At LearningWorks for Kids, we try to maximize the learning of problem-solving, thinking and academic skills from video games. Kids get the most out of digital play when they reflect on the challenges they face in video games and connect game-based learning to the real world. Getting involved with your child’s video game play not only helps her learn real-world skills — she’ll also learn that you care.

  • 5. Gamify your life

Go one step further and “gamify” real life! Give each other “character names,” stats and missions to make the everyday more fun. You’ll learn a lot more about video games and you’ll get your kids translating in-game skills to the real world, too.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

The Identity Issue: What Does It Mean to Be a Gamer?

What is your kid’s favorite play activity? If your son or daughter tells you it’s playing video games, you probably won’t be surprised. “Gamer” is an identity adopted by many kids, teens and even adults who are immersed in the lifestyle and culture of video games.

With so many kids identifying as gamers, some questions come to mind: How does the gamer identity develop? What are its implications? And how do gamers connect with other gamers? To answer these questions, I interviewed college students who have identified as gamers since they were young kids. My interviews revealed many different themes in the characteristics and development of gamer identity.

“I grew up as a gamer.”

The influence of family on the gamer identity is a common theme. Many of the gamers I interviewed described how they started gaming at an early age, often playing with family members. It was common to hear from these gamers that they would watch each other play. Older siblings, cousins, sometimes even parents played a role in introducing these gamers to video games and nurturing a love of gaming culture.

“My mom used to read the code to dad and he would program games into the computer for me,” recalled Ryan Smith, who today enjoys creating YouTube content and playing League of Legends. “And some of my earliest and fondest memories are of playing video games with my brother and cousins. I even have vivid memories of gameplay itself.”

“My friends are into gaming.” 

Almost all of these gamers identify their closest friends as gamers. Their friends influence the games they play, the way they think about these games, and even their own gamer identities. “When a friend would get a new game and it was multiplayer, everyone would get it,” Smith recalled. Online gaming creates a different community that allows gamers to connect to others who may not live down the street or go to the same school but who love games, or a certain game, the same way. Social media and online gaming have helped to cultivate gaming culture, which has its own language and traditions.

“I think one crucial thing for people to understand is that gaming is by no means a form of isolation,” Smith said. “It is an opportunity to create your world in any way, and this form of expression helps shape self-identity.”

“I think about games all the time.” 

Gamers don’t just play games, they think about them. A lot. When they’re at school, when they’re lying in bed at night, when they should be concentrating on their homework. Mentally, they work on solutions to problems they encounter in gameplay and use their creative and strategic skills to beat a game while they are engaged in other activities. This thought process seems integral to the gamer identity. Ryan Vigneau, who also enjoys creating YouTube content while supporting Team Instinct in Pokémon GO, theorized: “When you stop playing the game and are still thinking about it strategically … if your mindset is still in the game and you are not … if you walk away and think ‘I could do that next time’ … then you are a gamer.”

It is common for gamers to go beyond just thinking about gameplay to engaging with the characters and storyline; creating fan fiction, fan art and “cosplay” (costumed play) outfits; and attending conventions. Some gamers have the additional hobby of “modding” (modifying by programming) their favorite game.

“What is my identity as a female gamer?”

There is a history of gamers being stereotyped negatively. Female gamers face the additional challenge of criticism from within gaming culture itself. Objectification, dismissal, hostility and even threats of violence impact many girls and women who love to game. Gamers are often viewed as isolated male basement-dwellers, surrounded by junk food and lacking motivation and social skills.

Brittany Rodrigue, who enjoys competitive first-person shooters (especially the Halo series), told me: “Being a female in the gaming community is often the most challenging because we are faced with such harsh stereotypes in a male-dominated territory … I try as much as possible to not let gender influence or limit my possibilities especially with video games because being a gamer is just something I am and love.”

Video games are a part of everyday life

While not all of the gamers I interviewed grew up in a world saturated with technology, for most of today’s kids, video games are a part of everyday life. They don’t just have computers and game consoles, they have smartphones and tablets and even wearables. As video games become more prevalent and the gaming community skews younger, more and more kids are calling themselves gamers. But it may very well be that in the future, the label won’t be necessary at all.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

Why Your Kid Watches Videos of People Playing Video Games

Many parents are making a perplexing observation: Their children seem to prefer watching videos about their favorite video games — Minecraft, for example — rather than actually play those games. Kids are spending an increasing amount of time watching “Let’s Play” videos, narrated videos of other people’s gameplay that are peppered with humor and personal observation.

Let’s Play videos are among the most popular videos watched on YouTube, and many adults are understandably confused as to why kids would want to watch somebody else play a video game rather than play it themselves.

Why do kids love these videos?

Kids enjoy watching Let’s Play videos for a good number of reasons:

  • 1. Skills boost. Many kids just want to get better at a game and learn new strategies from an “expert.” They might use a video as a walkthrough that helps them get past a difficult section of the game. Kids expend a great deal of cognitive energy thinking about their gameplay and want to learn how to do things themselves — just as they might watch videos of people dancing, skateboarding or doing bike tricks so they can learn how to do those same moves and stunts. Developing an expertise and improving a set of skills is common and constitutes a desire for personal growth.
  • 2. Social connection. There is also a social component to Let’s Play videos. Kids share these videos with their peers and often watch and discuss them when they are together. Some kids watch these videos because they can’t afford to buy the game or because it is rated M and their parents won’t let them play it; they can watch others doing so on YouTube and therefore stay in the loop with their peers
  • 3. Entertainment. The most common reason kids watch Let’s Play videos is because they are entertaining. The entertainment value is not simply in the game itself but in the person who has made the video. Kids may be attracted to the charisma of a particular YouTuber and feel as if that person has become their friend. They get to know his or her personality and look forward to the interesting things that YouTuber is doing in their videos.

The entertainment value is not simply in the game itself but in the person who has made the video.

What should parents know about these videos?

Here are a few suggestions if your kid likes watching Let’s Play videos:

  • 1. Watch out for inappropriate content. YouTubers who produce these videos may use salty language or touch on topics that are inappropriate for a younger child. With the Toca TV streaming video service, all videos are prescreened to ensure they meet content standards and are appropriate for kids ages 5 to 9.
  • 2. Support kids in transforming watching videos into other activities. This means not simply playing the video games featured in the videos but also engaging in activities that go beyond the games, such as playing a sport, engaging in construction projects or learning programming and modding skills. Kids might even want to make a Let’s Play video of their own.
  • 3. Talk with kids about what they’re watching. Encourage kids to think about what they’re watching and to talk to you about how they might apply what they’ve learned in their gameplay and other activities. Helping kids recognize the types of thinking skills they are using in a game and how those skills are applied in daily life will help them get the most out of their video game time.

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Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

School is back in session, and many kids who had so much free time that they complained of boredom during the summer are now wishing they had that free time back. In today’s increasingly demanding academic environment, even kindergarten students are assigned homework, and time that was once reserved for play and physical activity in school is now devoted to the pursuit of academic subjects.

While desk work is part of the foundation for learning, developing a deep expertise and understanding, and defining interests, it can be overwhelming for many children.

traffic_spelled_funnyEducators and psychologists alike question whether the emphasis on homework and academics is good for kids or even helps them learn. There are many reasons to believe that sitting at a desk for six to seven hours a day is detrimental, and the types of learning skills that are needed for the 21st century — collaboration, communication, creativity, digital literacy and initiative — are often not the result of teacher-led, desk-based learning. We have strong data that play and physical activity are crucial to learning, and less compelling research exists about the benefits of homework.

How much homework is enough?

Even the basic guidelines for homework (endorsed by the both the National Education Association and the National PTA) of approximately 10 minutes per grade level per night (from 10 minutes for a first-grader to 120 minutes for a 12th-grader) can be excessive at times and leave little time to engage in play and physical activities. For students with learning disabilities, attentional problems, slow processing and executive function disorders, 30 minutes of homework can easily turn into an entire night of work.

Younger children are getting more homework than they ever did in the past. Many first- and second-grade students are assigned 30 minutes or more of homework a day. Given that these children have already spent seven hours at school — with decreasing amounts of time for physical exercise and play — it is even more important that they have outdoor and general recreation time once they get home. Most adults, after a long day at work, probably feel the same way.

Younger children are getting more homework than they ever did in the past.

When should kids do their homework?

Like it or not, homework is a reality. So when should it be done? Is it always best to buckle down right after school, or should kids have a break before putting their noses back in their books? For kids who are self-starters, homework might be delayed until after dinner, while kids who procrastinate will benefit from a more structured approach. The most effective strategies give kids a specified amount of playtime before they have to tackle homework. Play before homework will not work for every child, but it often leads to better focus and more energy. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a short respite involving screen-based media, the best type of break is one during which kids go outside and exercise their bodies as well as their brains.

Many studies indicate that being outdoors improves focus, creativity and learning. Other studies demonstrate that vigorous physical activity can increase a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that leads to enhancement in both attention and learning. Outdoor physical activity is particularly important for students who find school to be frustrating due to learning or attentional difficulties, as it essentially re-primes their brains. Physical activity after school also addresses the issue of obesity, an increasingly common phenomenon among younger children.

Play before homework … often leads to better focus and more energy.

Making play a requirement of homework

Because play and physical activity are so vitally important for kids’ health and learning, they should be a part of every school day. If teachers insist on giving homework on a daily basis, parents need to demand that kids have opportunities for recreation every day. And while physical exercise is important, other types of play have proven to be helpful for recharging the brain. Playing sports video games has been shown to lead to participation in the sports themselves and an overall increase in physical activity. Games like Toca Life: City prompt creativity skills and can assist children gain cognitive flexibility and other thinking skills.

Parents may need to think outside the box to ensure that their children have adequate opportunities for play and physical activity, and they definitely need to model a balance of play and work so their children can see them engaged in hobbies and regular exercise.

Kids need to have a balanced life, so it’s important for parents to advocate for them when teachers give too much homework. Work with the school and find ways to make homework an engaging learning experience. Encourage your children’s teachers to give them homework beyond drill and skill, including projects that require collaboration with their peers and that nurture your children’s unique interests so that they want to learn more.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.

The Creativity Issue: No, Technology Isn’t Robbing Your Kid of Creativity

Many social critics express alarm about 21st-century kids. Kids’ growing reliance upon technology for everything including learning and play, the critics warn, will hamper imagination and ingenuity. Can today’s kids deal with life’s many environmental, educational and socio-political stressors?

My experience as a child psychologist gives me a different perspective. I have seen kids with more varied interests in the past decade than at any other time in the past. While there are kids who may spend a disproportionate amount of their time engaged in screen-based activities, I encounter more who are captivated by activities like cooking, computer programming, video production, entrepreneurship, clothing design and other creative pursuits. I find myself wondering whether kids growing up in the digital age are actually more creative than kids from previous generations.

I have seen kids with more varied interests in the past decade than at any other time in the past.

Should parents push practice — or play?

It’s important to think about why this is and what parents can do (or not do) to encourage this creativity and playfulness. Adam Grant addresses these issues and others in an enlightening New York Times article. In “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off,” Grant suggests that the most creative students are not necessarily those who are child prodigies or whose parents forced them to practice selected skills repeatedly. Instead, he notes that creativity is generally enhanced by a playful approach where learning is made fun and children are able to find their own values and interests.

Grant asserts that creative kids are more likely to engage in a variety of play activities rather than focusing their efforts on just one hobby. “Nobel Prize winners,” he points out, compared with other scientists, “are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or musicians, 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

From this perspective, play can be understood as more important than practice for innovation and problem solving. There is a commonly accepted rule derived from the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson, Ph.D. — recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell — that spending 10,000 hours on a particular subject makes one an expert. Ericsson’s original theory was that “deliberate practice” was more important than innate talent in “the acquisition of expert performance.” But there is some question as to whether expertise alone leads to innovation, advancement and creativity. In his New York Times article, Grant argues that creativity does not come from repeated practice but from opportunities to try out new things and to be engaged in a variety of activities. “Practice makes perfect,” he writes, “but it doesn’t make new.”

Creativity is generally enhanced by a playful approach where learning is made fun and children are able to find their own values and interests.

Fewer rules, more creative kids

Parenting styles play a role in enhancing creativity as well. Grant describes a 1989 study (notably before the digital revolution) that found the most creative kids came from families that held up one basic rule rather than the average of six rules found in less creative families. Grant proposes that having a limited number of rules encourages kids to think on their own.

These findings can also be interpreted to suggest that kids who get the opportunity to develop executive functioning, social-emotional learning (SEL), and problem-solving skills are more likely to be creative. So, parents who won’t let their kids go outside or try something new out of fear for their safety may be inhibiting their kids’ natural creativity.

Creativity requires risk, plain and simple, and it should be fun, energizing and voluntary. I would also argue that playfulness is crucial. When kids (or adults) are enjoying what they’re doing or at least don’t take it too seriously, they are more likely to be enthusiastic, sustain attention and overcome frustration. Kids who are encouraged to engage in a variety of play activities are likely to display more creative expression.

Creativity requires risk, plain and simple, and it should be fun, energizing and voluntary.

Help kids find balance

With all that being said, in today’s highly competitive, digital world, there are incredible pressures on kids to succeed, as well as many powerful distractions that can take them away from the stressors of their daily life. As kids enter their teens, some strive to become “experts,” focusing on sports, musical talents or tech skills, while others turn to drugs or too much passive screen time. Some kids are driven to create a resume that will get them into the best college, so they have little time left for play.

Other kids, less guided by their parents, may focus too much of their attention on a screen and ignore the variety of play activities that leads to creativity and better psychological adjustment and contentment. Though Grant’s article is informative and enlightening, rather than simply suggesting that parents “back off,” perhaps parents should be encouraged to exert some gentle guidance and modeling, to help kids find a healthy balance of play and discipline in their life.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.

Like the Real Thing, Sandbox Games Can Promote Freedom and Creativity

Playing in the SandboxConsider how a young child plays in a backyard sandbox. She digs around with her hands in the sand, perhaps incorporates a few toys or characters in her play, and shapes her sandbox world without a clear goal or endpoint in mind. Playing in a sandbox is a multisensory experience that is free and unstructured.

Unfortunately, most playgrounds and backyards no longer have a sandbox, and the big sandbox that most of us call the beach is not always an option. However, there is an engaging genre of video games referred to as sandbox games that promotes the freedom and open play of a real-life sandbox.

Different kinds of sandbox games

All sandbox games are not the same. Their commonalities include a large open world where players have the freedom to explore on their own and, in some cases, to choose adventures and side quests. Some sandbox games are set in vast city environments or large natural settings, others in more limited realms such as homes, doctors’ offices or hair salons. In many sandbox games — like Toca Blocks — players can build or alter the world itself or influence their characters.

Most sandbox games have limited goals (if any at all) and many ways to progress in the game, so that there is not one single direction that players need to take. For the most part, sandbox games do not have a definitive beginning or end, and a sense of achievement and success can occur throughout any part of the game.

Many sandbox games also have mini-games integrated into them. These mini-games tend to be more goal oriented but are generally a small part of the overall gameplay.

Sandbox games appeal to a broad age range

Some of the more popular sandbox games are those made for teens and adults. Most notably, games such as Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, Fallout, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect and Assassins Creed allow gamers to explore where they want and to engage in the activities they find most interesting. However, most of these games impose restrictions on players based upon the limitations of the game world and plot progression.

There are also a great many sandbox games for younger children. In these games, exploration, creativity and a lack of predetermined outcomes make gameplay highly engaging and an opportunity for learning.

Toca Blocks is a world-building app that lets kids play in the worlds they create.

Sandbox games encourage freedom of play

What is incredibly powerful about sandbox games is the freedom of play they encourage. Because there are limited roles and goals that are set by the players, they are much closer to a form of free, unstructured play  than many types of technology.

Players are often able to choose the path they take in the game, which activities they partake in, characters and tools they use, and on what they want to focus their attention. These type of open-ended games and apps for younger kids help them to play in a self-directed fashion, develop new interests, and explore a setting they might not normally have access to in real life.

There are often very specific features in sandbox games that may attract a particular child’s interest. For example, one of my patients who regularly plays Minecraft, which is perhaps the purest example of a sandbox game, was very engaged in building contraptions and circuits out of redstone, an ore found in the game that conducts electricity.

Child psychologists use the same techniques

Interestingly, child psychologists and play therapists have used these techniques for many years in their work with children. A common tool in a play therapist’s office is something called a sand tray. Sand trays are generally small sandboxes with a variety of characters and objects that allow kids to describe the major relationships and events in their lives. Sand trays often have toy buildings and structures to facilitate expression of thoughts and concerns about home and school and are considered to be a powerful way to help kids explore and articulate feelings about difficult issues.

Child psychologists and play therapists have used these techniques for many years.

Some play therapists have recently started to use Google Earth as an alternative to sand-tray therapy. Consider how playing with Google Earth allows for exploration, finding new things and nearly endless searching. Therapists allow children to be self-directed in what they explore with Google Earth and often discover that they choose to find their school, home and friends’ houses and voluntarily begin to voice their thoughts and concerns about these settings.

What kids love about sandbox games

Kids have a common refrain when asked what they like about sandbox games: that they enjoy choosing what to do, constructing and building within the game and exploring places they have not been before.

One of my patients told me, “I can do what I want, go where I want, and build anything I want,” in reference to playing Minecraft. It is almost as if players get to go on a treasure hunt that leads them into places they have never been before. Players often find that they are able to do something unique in the game or combine activities to create something brand new.

They enjoy choosing what to do, constructing and building and exploring places they have not been before.

Sandbox gameplay nurtures creativity

Sandbox games are not the only type of video games that can facilitate creativity, personal development and self-direction. However because many sandbox games do not have hard and fast, predetermined outcomes, kids’ play activities are typically more representative of who they are rather than based upon the demands of the game. This type of less-structured play nurtures decision making and critical-thinking skills, self-awareness and creativity. There are compelling studies suggesting that this type of unstructured sandbox play may also facilitate improved executive functions and self-control.

This type of less-structured play nurtures decision making and critical-thinking skills, self-awareness and creativity.

The openness of sandbox games brings out play that reflects the internal motivations and interests of the players. Sandbox games can be thought of as an (almost) blank canvas for play. As a result, watching your child play these games is likely to reveal something about her inner self to you. So the next time your child wants to play a sandbox game, let her — and use it as an opportunity to sit back and watch her explore who she is.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids