Kids Brain Health Network: Dino Island, the therapeutic game for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 1.17.47 PMWhen a child logs into Dino Island, their first step is to design an alias before jumping into a world filled with mythical creatures and erupting volcanoes. Their job is to complete a series of tasks and collect coins along the way. While this might sound like the premise of any great video game, Dino Island is unique.

Termed a “serious game,” Dino Island is specifically designed to improve attention, working memory, and executive function in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. The game—which was initially developed at the University of Victoria’s Psychology Department—is rooted in neural science, based on the understanding that if the brain is constantly engaging in a particular skill over and over again, the neuropathways that support that skill are strengthened and connections in the brain are rewired. Kids Brain Health Network has supported and funded the project throughout its inception and development.

One of the games in Dino Island is focused on attention switching. In the first level, a child receives clear cues to switch back and forth between collecting different types of fruit. In the next level, distractors come in, which teaches the child to collect specific fruits while ignoring others. As the child progresses the cues become less obvious, and they’re eventually challenged to inhibit their natural tendencies (for example, they need to have a red dinosaur collecting green fruit, rather than following their natural instinct which would be to have the red dinosaur collecting red fruit).

“You go from this really simple switching where the game just tells them what to do, to having to monitor and figure it out themselves, which gets into more of the executive functioning and higher order aspects,” explains Dr. Sarah Macoun, assistant professor of psychology and neuropsychology at the University of Victoria, and one of the lead researchers on the project along with her colleague Dr. Kimberly Kerns, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Victoria.

The validated approach behind Dino Island was first used on adults who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and was later expanded to treat brain-based disorders. After some time, researchers started to hypothesis that using a video game format to deliver the therapy would be most effective.

“We know from the literature that having something [like video games] which are more interesting and engaging and salient drives neural change faster,” says Dr. Macoun.

The game is now delivered on a tablet and is hierarchical, meaning it starts from easier aspects of attention and executive function and moves to more challenging skills. It is also adaptive and provides sufficient repetition in order to be rehabilitative, explains Dr. Macoun.

In the past, delivering these types of therapeutic interventions required a trained—and often expensive or inaccessible—expert to deliver it. Dino Island has been programmed to track a child’s performance and ensure they’re always working at a level that challenges them, which eliminates the need for a professional to administer it. Instead, the team has developed a training module that parents, educational assistants, or support workers can take, who then act as the interventionists and sit alongside the child while they’re playing.

The role of the interventionist is to encourage the child and help them come up with strategies to pass levels. For example, a child could be struggling on a level that’s targeted at working memory. The interventionist could then suggest that the child try making up stories about items on the screen in order to remember them or say out loud what images they’re seeing. If the child is getting overwhelmed, the interventionist might coach them to take deep breaths or go for a walk.

“The interventionist isn’t doing the task for them; they’re introducing something to the child and helping them decide which strategy works best for them and then reminding them to use that strategy,” says Dr. Macoun.  “And in addition to that neuro rewiring that comes from that repetitive hierarchal graded exercise, they’re also learning strategies to maximize their focus and thinking skills.”

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