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Computer and Video Games for Special Needs Children

Toys are a child's natural form of play, their first way to express themselves. Long before they begin communicating, children are playing. Educators have long known the importance of play in a child's life and have used that play to teach many things. Computer games and video games can open up a whole new world for all children, but especially those with special needs.

Elaine Wood of Valley Springs, Calif., found that these kinds of games were a way to connect with her autistic son. Her son has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism and is very bright, but his people and life skills are very low. One day, in her son's school office, she observed the principal teasing a boy playing his Gameboy, and she saw herself reflected in his attitude toward the child.

"Frequently, I am asking Michael to cross a bridge to a destination he can not perceive – our world that we take for granted," Wood says. "My son loves computer games, online and any games like the Nintendo, Playstation, GameCube, etc., and he is intensely passionate about playing them He is in a zone during the play and can spend hours, if allowed, without verbalization, food, drinks or bathroom breaks, rocking or manipulating his body like a contortionist. I did not see the value in the gaming or understand it, but standing in the school office that day I decided that I needed to examine my generational judgment of gaming and cross the bridge into Michael's world."

Wood asked her son if she could play with him that very evening. Though she found it incredibly frustrating at first, the benefits were worth it. "I realized that by playing games, I was developing a social interactive opportunity for Michael," she says. "The days of game time evolved into a share time with Michael pulling up a chair to the computer with me, and we would play together several online games. He easily converses with me now during the gaming, although not during his turn, and I can understand that!"

The Benefits

Video games and computer games are fairly new, and their educational and developmental benefits for special needs children are just now being explored. Brock Dubbles is the media specialist and instructional designer for Minneapolis Public Schools, as well as a graduate research associate for the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota. He says that many people discount the positive aspects of video and computer games.

"I would like to share that although games have been vilified, for just reasons in some cases, games suffer from the same kind of criticism most new media experience in their infancy, i.e. movies, television, books – all were demonized as corrupting forces, and were considered vulgar and low forms of expression," he says. "Research has shown that acting is a much more powerful way of learning than reading, hearing, seeing and collaborating. Incidentally, all of these learning methods are present in games, but also include acting, or applying that knowledge that was made available."

Dubbles says that games are a social practice that are created for entertainment, as well as developing skills in a safe space where practice and development are acceptable without the high stakes we are often exposed to in the world. "Just consider this from an evolutionary perspective," he says. "An individual can develop a skill for a dangerous situation in a game space, without facing the potential consequence while they are developing skills and confidence."

For some special needs children, video and computer games can actually mean getting to know other people in a safe and controlled manner. For others, they can teach life skills in a way that is interactive and fun. Dubbles says that games can be useful in that they provide a quality experience, and if the child's support system can help deconstruct the game and connect the experience to larger real-world issues, parents can go far in turning computer and game time into quality learning time.

Picking the Right Game

Dubbles says that parents can pick out appropriate games for their special needs children by being aware of their interests and developmental levels, as well as milestones that parents would like to help children achieve. "Although provocative games get the lion's share of press, there are many family-friendly games that are fun, as well as deep in potential learning," he says. "The key is being open to learning about the games your child is interested in. At the very least, you acknowledge the value of your child's interests, as well as open yourself to experience where you can reflect and share your values and appreciation for your child. Sometimes meeting a person halfway means trying what they like with an open mind and the experience to help them make sense of the experience."

James Haldy is the academic director for Game Art & Design and Visual & Game Programming at The Art Institute of Phoenix. With over 19 years of experience in the video and computer game field, he has seen games change from the simple to the complex and become very useful as teaching tools for special needs children. "Children with special needs can learn to do ordinary real-world tasks by repetitiously doing them in a video game environment where the results have no permanent consequences," he says. "Video games can also teach children to develop complex problem-solving capabilities and how to interact with other individuals."

Talk to your child's teachers and counselors, and ask them if they know of any good computer or video games appropriate for your child. Haldy says it's important to remember that not all video games will serve the same purposes or provide the same results. "If a child has a problem with hand-eye coordination, then games that emphasize hand-eye coordination through progressive levels of difficulty might serve as a good training vehicle," he says. "However, this same sort of game might not be very helpful for a child with attention deficit disorder (ADD). In this case, a good puzzle-solving video game might be more useful. Parents need to be aware of the type of play that is required for each video game they are considering purchasing."

Quality Games

The number of computer and video games on the market can be overwhelming. The following list contains just a few of the quality games available.

  • The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (Broderbund): This fun and logical computer game helps develop logic, reasoning and other pre-math skills.
  • School Rules! (Social Skills Builder): This is a two CD ROM social skills building set that teaches children acceptable behavior in school, during both structured and unstructured school time.
  • Play Attention (Unique Logic and Technologies): This is a unique computer program that teaches children with attention disorders to pay attention. Using NASA technology and biofeedback, the game uses a helmet to monitor brainwaves and teaches children how to pay attention.
  • Toontown Online: This is a Disney game designed to give children a safe and fun place to play online. This is especially helpful for children with Asperger syndrome or autism, as they can learn to communicate with others without the challenges of face-to-face communication.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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