Summer camps/programs can teach kids with ADHD valuable life skills, playing video games should not be one of them.

“Boys who have been deprived of time outdoors, interacting with the real world rather than with computers, sometimes have trouble grasping concepts that seem simple to us.”

“The destructive effects of video games are not on boys’ cognitive abilities or their reaction times, but on there motivation and their connectedness with the real world.” 

― Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

Summer is an excellent time for kids with ADHD to have experiences that will help build their executive function skills, social competency and develop greater independence. There are great summer opportunities (at all price points) where kids can learn these critical life skills such as day camps, scout camps, travel programs, overnight camps, etc. Unfortunately many parents of children and teenagers diagnosed with ADHD (with the best of intentions) opt to pay for their child to attend summer camps/programs where their child has access to video games or where video games are the primary activity. Given that many kids with ADHD have a problem with compulsive video game usage as well as making and sustaining friendships with similar-age peers paying for them to play video games during the summer seems counter-intuitive to their growth.

Over the past 10 years a large number of video game/computer camps have sprung up across the country. While these programs are an easy sell to a child who has difficulty connecting with similar-age peers or who finds it easier to interact with screens due to their social anxiety these screen-heavy summer programs offer little opportunity for kids with ADHD to be gently pushed out of their comfort zone so they can grow and develop the skills that research has shown are critical for success in life.

Additionally, many “social skills camps” have found that by offering Minecraft, video games and other screen-based activities they can easily market themselves to parents who may be most concerned about getting their child’s buy-in through allowing them to have access to their favorite activities, which in many cases are limited to video games and computers.

Here are some important questions parents should ask before signing their child/teenager up for a summer program/camp:

  1. What opportunities will they have for semi-structured or unstructured playing and “hanging out” without computers, electronics, etc.? When kids are able to spend time together in semi-structured or unstructured situations, without the involvement of screens or adults directing their interactions they learn to negotiate the terms of play, “share an imagination”, connect with peers on an emotional level and learn how to be part of a group. While the idea of unstructured time may make some parents anxious, think about the times you spent playing outside with peers or hanging out with friends as a teenager. Most likely you spent ample amounts of time doing both and have good memories of those times. Having an ADHD diagnosis does not mean that a child or teenager needs to be hovered over at all times. Kids who are constantly hovered over or never have the opportunity to spend free time with peers, without the use of screen-based activities loose valuable opportunities to develop their executive function skills. Summer camp and programs that combine both supervised structured activities as well as supervised unstructured or semi-structured activities provide kids with opportunities to build their executive functioning.
  2. How will they be encouraged to step outside of their comfort zone so they can try new things and learn new skills? Many young people diagnosed with ADHD have low frustration tolerance when it comes to mastering new tasks. Many will give up easily if they’re not good at something right away. Others will avoid trying new things out of fear of failing or not being perfect at something. This “black & white thinking” can be an obstacle for kids with ADHD to learn new skills and try new things they may enjoy. A good summer program/camp should be able to articulate how they will encourage and help a student with low frustration tolerance or fear of failure to try new things and how they will teach them skills in a way that works for their learning style.
  3. What is the policy regarding bringing phones/electronics and how much time will my child be allowed to play computer or video games? Kids with ADHD who have struggled to form new friendships or who have some social anxiety will use their smartphones or electronic devices as a replacement for interacting with similar-age peers. Many social skills camps and summer programs that market themselves to families of children diagnosed with ADHD allow their campers to spend more than 40 minutes per day in screen-based activities because they understand that screen-based activities are a strong selling point to their target market. According to comprehensive research by professors Craig Anderson and Doug Gentile the maximum amount of time children and teenagers should be spending on video games is:
  • No more than 40 minutes/night on school nights
  • No more than 1 hour/day on weekends/vacations

How can I be assured that my child will not be allowed to sit out of activities that he/she finds uninteresting or challenging? If you were to visit day or overnight camps during the summer you will most likely find a stray camper sitting on off to the side or instead or wandering around instead of participating in activities with their peers. While some parents don’t mind if their child is not engaged or isolating themselves from their peers, an opportunity to build resiliency, confidence and a sense of pride from trying and persevering through new things is lost when campers are not required to participate with their peers. Learning to get through the “boring moments” of life is about building resiliency and understanding that we sometimes have to get through tasks we find uninteresting. I have unfortunately met quite a few young adults diagnosed with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental challenges who are living at home, unemployed or underemployed because they never we taught to push themselves through non-preferred tasks. This is a scenario that is avoidable however parents need to understand that it is not their job to make sure their child is happy and comfortable at all times. (This will be discussed in a future post.)

What is your understanding of the challenges kids with ADHD face in summer programs? This is an important question. Please don’t accept “we have lots of kids with ADHD” as answer. Because someone may have had a lot of expsoure to kids with ADHD does not mean they have received any training in how to help support campers with ADHD in their environment. It is very important that the staff who would be working with your child has an understanding of the issues that kids with ADHD face in a summer program setting and how they can support your child to make their summer experience a safe, confidence building learning experience.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, PA and Summer Travel Camp in Lafayette Hill, PA. Summer Travel Program is an 8-week nonacademic program for boys ages 11-15 who present with ADHD, social anxiety or learning differences to develop their executive functioning, social and age-expected independent skills. Learn more at: www.adhdtravelcamp.com

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