This picture is of me and my 10-year-old son, Duncan, playing Minecraft together. Like a lot of parents, I used to think Minecraft was a waste of time (and I’m a technology expert!). But my son has always loved the game. He has often said to me, “Daddy, do you want me to teach you how to play?”
Duncan has ADHD. His attention issues often get in the way of his executive functioning skills. He has a hard time keeping his room neat and his books organized—and getting started on his homework. But, curiously, when he’s playing Minecraft, he has no trouble staying calm, patiently working through problems and reaching his goals in the game.
That sparked my interest, and I finally agreed to play with him. Once I did, it was amazing to see how many of the tasks he was doing in Minecraft involve executive functions.
I know that might be hard to believe. So at my son’s suggestion, he and I came up with some examples.
Task: Build a Shelter
Skill: Planning and Prioritizing
The object of Minecraft is to survive in an imaginary world. The first thing you need to do is build a shelter before sunset. If you don’t, monsters like Creepers and Zombies will come out at night and destroy you. You need to build a shelter quickly. Do you build a simple hut out of dirt? Do you take refuge in a cave or collect wood to build a house? You need to plan and set priorities in order to survive.
Task: Keep Track of Inventory
In Minecraft, you keep building supplies, food and tools in your inventory. Space is limited. Organization is important. If there are items that can’t fit in the inventory, they must be stored in wooden chests. The more items you have, the more important it is to stay organized. You need to know where to find things when you need them.
Task: Use a Crafting Table
Skill: Working Memory
To create things, you use a “crafting table” and a recipe. You need to remember the ingredients in that recipe. An example is TNT, an explosive used in the game. To craft a block of TNT, you need to gather gunpowder and sand and add them to the crafting table. This process requires the use of working memory.
Task: Handle the Unexpected
Skill: Flexible Thinking
Sometimes in Minecraft, you may get lost while gathering wood or mining underground. You may find yourself away from your shelter after dark and surrounded by monsters. Or you may accidentally fall into a ravine or cave. You need flexible thinking to handle these unexpected situations.
Task: Explore Temples
Skill: Impulse Control
You can also explore the world of Minecraft. When you do, you sometimes come across temples. Temples have treasure rooms, but they also have hidden traps. To get the treasure, you need to carefully scout out the temple first. It takes self-control to stop from rushing in.
Task: Build Machines
One of the coolest things about Minecraft is that you can build machines to make tasks easier. Duncan loves this part of the game. He recently built an oven that cooks chicken. The oven helps him stay well fed and survive in the game. To make his chicken oven, Duncan needed to use self-monitoring to keep track of his building progress. If something wasn’t right, he needed to fix it. He’s very proud that he was able to make the adjustments for the oven to work.
Will Duncan’s success in Minecraft improve his executive functioning when doing everyday tasks? I wouldn’t go that far. These skills don’t necessarily transfer to activities that kids find less interesting. But right now, I’m just happy that my son has a relaxing activity in which he can feel a sense of accomplishment.
In his words, “There’s less pressure to get things done than in real life, and I can just express my creativity without having to worry about what other people think. That’s why I like Minecraft.”