The Benefits of Board Games for People With ADHD

Coping with ADHD isn’t fun and games. Or is it?

As I’ve written before, hobbies are an important part of coping with ADHD. They can fend off boredom, keep your brain happy, and alleviate stress, all of which make managing ADHD symptoms easier.

In that post, I mentioned ADHD-friendly hobbies like knitting, gardening, and making music. One hobby I didn’t mention but very well could have is board games.

Not only do many people with ADHD seem to enjoy board games anecdotally, but a couple studies have suggested that playing board games could be a promising intervention for ADHD symptoms.

So yes, if you’re looking for a scientifically backed excuse to spend your time playing board games, you’ve come to the right place. But before we get into the specifics of those studies, it’s worth pausing to consider why psychology researchers would even think to look at board games as a possible ADHD treatment in the first place.

Why are board games a good fit for ADHD?

To see why people with ADHD stand to get something out of board games, it’s first worth noting that board games can potentially do something for ADHDers that many other activities can’t: hold our attention!

For people with ADHD to become engaged in a task, that task generally has to provide a sense of ongoing stimulation and reward. ADHDers don’t deal with boredom well, and tasks without a sense of immediate reward are tasks where the ADHD brain often struggles to sustain concentration.

Board games do provide a sense of reward to keep the ADHD brain engaged. There’s the competitive aspect, ongoing excitement, a feeling of working toward an immediate goal. All of that can motivate the ADHD brain to stay focused on the task at hand.

Besides the fact that board games have the potential to keep ADHDers engaged, it’s also relevant that board games tend to draw on a range of cognitive skills, challenging players to exercise their brains in different ways.

This cognitively demanding aspect is a major reason board games have gotten attention as a possible mental health intervention. If board games are good at keeping people engaged and they push people to manage information and think strategically, then that’s potentially a recipe for developing new cognitive skills.

And the studies that have been done on board games as an ADHD intervention so far indicate there may be something to that idea.

The game of Go and ADHD

One game that has been explored as possibly beneficial to ADHDers is the game of Go, which was invented in China and is popular throughout East Asia. In this game, players take turns putting down stones on a grid to try and stake out territory or capture their opponents’ stones.

GoGo is a strategic game that requires high-level planning and abstract thinking. Partly for that reason, a team of psychology researchers in South Korea chose to test Go playing as a possible board game intervention. The results of their study were published in 2014 in the journal Psychiatry Investigation.

Their study was done on 17 unmedicated children with ADHD, who underwent 16 weeks of Go training. At the end of the study period, they found the children with ADHD had lower levels of inattentive symptoms, although the children’s levels of hyperactive symptoms remained the same.

Interestingly, the children also showed a number of improvements in terms of executive functioning skills, including enhanced working memory and faster performance on a test that involved connecting circles in a specified order. Those findings fit with the idea that Go may have reduced ADHD symptoms because it exercised a range of cognitive skills that might apply to other tasks besides board games.

The researchers also found that improvements in inattentive symptoms correlated with certain changes in brain activity measured using QEEG. Although both children with and without ADHD seemed to benefit from the Go playing intervention, the changes in brain activity were more pronounced in the 17 children with ADHD.

Overall, the results from this study seem to suggest that Go might be an activity that could develop more generally useful skills for children (and maybe adults!) with ADHD. Summarizing their findings, the authors of the study concluded that:

We suggest that playing Go would be effective for children with ADHD by activating hypoarousal prefrontal function and enhancing executive function.

In other words, a board game might have the potential to help kids with ADHD get their brains in gear and develop new cognitive skills!

Chess training for ADHD

A more familiar board game for many is chess, which is enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Like Go, chess involves a variety of abstract, strategic and visual thinking skills, making it another good candidate for stretching one’s cognitive abilities.

ChessIn 2017, researchers in Spain investigated an 11-week chess training program as a possible treatment for ADHD in 44 children between the ages of 6 and 17.

As in the case of the Go study, the researchers found that chess training was associated with a decrease in children’s ADHD symptoms over time. An additional discovery was that the beneficial effects of chess training were stronger among children with ADHD who had higher IQs.

To put it another way, children with ADHD and above-average intelligence may especially stand to benefit from playing board games. That idea is consistent with the fact that ADHD can look different in highly intelligent children (including being harder to diagnose).

More generally, the results of this study suggest that chess, like Go, is a game that should be considered as a promising activity for ADHDers to take up – possibly even one that can help with managing symptoms.

The takeaway on ADHD and board games

While the studies on Go and chess as interventions for ADHD are interesting, they shouldn’t be be taken as irrefutable evidence that board games are sure to reduce ADHD symptoms. Rather, they’re an indication that this might be a fruitful direction for future psychology research to pursue.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the hypothetical advantages of board games for ADHDers. We don’t know how the findings of the studies on Go and chess would generalize from children to adults, or to other types of board games. The studies were also done on relatively small samples of participants, with some limitations in experimental design, so the results are somewhat tentative.

The good news is that for those of us with ADHD, we don’t have to wait until the scientific debate has been decisively resolved to experiment with board games as a coping strategy – or even just a rewarding hobby.

Along those lines, it might be worthwhile for parents of children with ADHD to consider board games as an activity that can be both fun and beneficial for cognitive development. And for adults with ADHD, board games can likewise be seen as a hobby that is both enjoyable and potentially promotes cognitive health.

If you have any thoughts on board games that you think might be a good fit for the ADHD brain, or just plain fun in general, feel free to leave recommendations below!

Image of people playing chess: Flickr/Wayne S. Grazio

Image of Go board: Flickr/Linh Nguyen

Image of chess board: Flickr/Gabriel Saldana

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