5 ways video games can help kids with special needs

By Caroline Knorr

Strengthening skills through play is a proven strategy to help kids learn. For kids with special needs, video games can offer opportunities to practice everything from communication skills to organization — even social interaction — in a comfortable environment where players set the pace. While games designed specifically for kids with special needs can address certain issues, many mainstream titles can support your kid’s learning. Mainstream games can boost a sense of independence and confidence in kids with special needs, provide the ability to ask for help, and let them challenge themselves. Try these games to help kids with special needs in these five areas:

1. Communication

Games that use visual storytelling, social modeling, and language patterns can help kids with speaking, listening, and communicating. Learn more about communication challenges.

Moving Out, age 8+, Switch, PlayStation, Windows, Xbox One
Moving Out turns everyone’s most-dreaded request — a friend asking you to help them move — into a ton of fun. Designed to be played cooperatively on a shared screen, the game is physics-based, so you can apply real-world rules to navigate through the environment.

Overcooked, age 8+, Switch, PlayStation, Windows, Xbox One
This arcade game about cooking is fast-paced, hilarious, and ridiculous. Designed for same-room co-op play, it relies on players to trust each other and communicate effectively to prepare dishes at an ever-dizzying pace.

Among Us, age 10+, Windows, iOS, Android
This action/strategy game set in space has it all: deception, deduction, confusion, and plenty of humor. Designed for a crew of 4 to 10 players, Among Us promotes teamwork, working toward a goal, and helping others under challenging circumstances.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, age 10+, Mac, Oculus Rift, PlayStation, Windows
Kids can learn about problem-solving and teamwork in this bomb-defusing simulation game. Players have to communicate quickly, clearly, and effectively to solve puzzles — similar to an Escape Room — so the bomb doesn’t go off (and if it does, there’s only an explosion sound and the screen goes dark).

The Jackbox Party Pack 7, age 12+, Switch, PlayStation, Windows, Xbox One
Laughter is the throughline with this collection of mini-games designed to inspire creativity and funny interactions among groups of three or more. Players get to do a variety of fun and silly activities like ad-libbing a presentation, creating wacky sentences, and drawing characters that vie for made-up titles.

2. Motor Skills

Games that encourage movement — from dancing to sports to drawing to handwriting — strengthen muscle memory and put a name to an action. Learn more about motor skill challenges.

Beat Saber, age 10+, HTC Vive, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR
In this action-rhythm game designed for virtual reality, players are challenged to use their sci-fi swordlike sabers to attack and dodge flying beats in time with the rhythm of individual music tracks. Swapping out the gear and watching friends chase their own high score while cheering them on is almost as much fun as being the one in the game.

Just Dance 2021, age 10+, Google Stadia, Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Just Dance lets players get physically active with their dance moves, while it teaches music appreciation, choreography, and rhythm. Players use motion controls and a mobile app to mimic on-screen choreography in time with any of the game’s 40 included pop songs.

Ring Fit Adventure, age 10+, Switch
To make progress in this fitness adventure game, players must get physical. Kids explore a large world and use exercises like jogging in place, sit-ups, and yoga poses to defeat enemies. Animated figures on-screen demonstrate proper form, while nutrition and fitness tips play throughout the game.

3. Organization

Developing new routines, transitioning activities, and managing time are challenges for kids who struggle with executive functioning skills. Games that emphasize visual scheduling and break big jobs into smaller tasks can help. Learn more about organization challenges.

Minecraft, age 8+, Mac, Switch, PlayStation, Windows, Xbox One, iOS, Android
MInecraft is a virtual sandbox that gives players all the tools they need to explore a vast world, harvest resources, and create nearly everything they can possibly imagine. Given carte blanche to sculpt virtually any creation of their choice in this 3D space, kids can try out tons of possibilities while working toward simple objectives.

Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit, age 8+, Switch
Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit combines real-world crafting with video games and digital activities for the Nintendo Switch (which is required to put these creations together). Kids work with cardboard cutouts to create complex models — a fishing rod, a robot, a piano — and insert the Switch screen and Joy-Con controllers to turn their constructs into interactive objects. Smartly designed video tutorials lead players through the entire building process and provide instructions on how to program the Joy-Con controllers to make new cardboard toys.

Dreams, age 10+, PlayStation 4
Much more than a video game, Dreams is a collection of tools that lets players create and share their work with others. Along with some premade content and other people’s work you can download and play, it includes several tools to make your own game, animated film, music creation, and more, before sharing it within the online community. Players select how they like to control content and then follow along with tutorials to complete projects.

4. Reading and Writing

Games that give both verbal and written instructions, break down directions into small steps, and focus on the player’s strengths can help boost reading and writing skills. Learn more about reading and writing challenges.

Elegy for a Dead World, age 9+ Mac, Windows
It sounds creepy, but Elegy for a Dead World is a free-form storytelling game that gives kids the freedom to write whatever they want using prompts or their own imaginations. Doki Doki lets players explore an unusual world and meet people, with the ultimate goal of understanding human behavior.