How I got kids with ADHD and ASD to focus for 40 minutes

About a month ago, I ran a series of miniature painting workshops for my students and their friends/siblings. Those who attended ranged from ages 6 to 15; many of them had ADHD, and a few were on the spectrum. The kids were given the choice of either painting Space Marines from Warhammer 40K, or Gryph-hounds from Age of Sigmar.

The workshop aimed to impart values such as self-awareness and mindfulness, to students with ADHD and/or Autism Spectrum Disorders. Such values help children with ADHD and ASD learn how to focus, sit still and concentrate.

The workshop would also provide students with an opportunity to pick up a hobby that has a relatively higher barrier to entry. After all, it’s difficult to know what to buy when you’re new to miniature model painting.

By now, you’d probably have figured it out: yes, the workshop was a smashing success, and yes, the kids who attended were able to sit still and paint for at least 40 minutes, even those with severe ADHD.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the latest treatment for hyperactivity: miniature model painting!

Ok, that was partially in jest. In all seriousness though, I was surprised it went so well, even with the kids who normally couldn’t stop fidgeting. To illustrate how I made it all work, however, I’ll need to explain what miniature painting is, and why it’s not the easiest hobby to get into.

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Running the workshops for the kids

Children miniature painting at Swords & StationeryWith the hobby being much more accessible now, I wanted to conduct a miniature painting workshop to see if it could teach children the value of mindfulness. After bringing in the necessary models, paints and tools, I disseminated the information to my students’ parents. In total, I got about 15 sign-ups, with an equal mix of boys and girls. The former wanted to paint Space Marines, while the latter opted for the Gryph-hounds.

With everything set up, we were ready to roll!

The process

Each session ran for about 2 hours. We went through four stages of painting: base-coating, shading, dry-brushing, and finally basing (texturing the bases).

Base-coating involved painting the model with all the basic colours. The kids spent the most time on this (roughly 30 to 40 minutes), but were also most focused here.

Shading involved applying washes (aka shade paints) to the model, to provide it with a more three-dimensional appearance. This was easy, and the kids finished this in about 10 minutes on average.

Dry-brushing involved adding minute details to the model. These details included scratch marks, rust, flaked off paint, etc.

Basing was the part that the kids had fun with the most. This stage involved adding special paints to the bases of the models, to give the effect of dirt/poop. Most of the kids opted for “poop” textures, though a few also wanted something “grassier” or “muddier”.


Here, you can see how a few of the models ended up looking:

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They’re far from perfect, but considering it was their first time, I’d say the kids did really well. Most were able to stay focused for at least 40 minutes, and some could actually go through the whole thing completely focused. Even those with severe ADHD sat really still throughout the base-coating process.

Frankly, I was very surprised by it too!

At the end of each workshop session, I asked the kids if they would want to come back for the next window. The unanimous answer to that was a resounding Yes!

How the children, even those with ADHD, could sit still and concentrate for FORTY minutes

To cut the long explanation short, the children were all able to focus due to an intrinsic desire to do well. This was regardless of whether they were the hyperactive sort, or the type to drift easily.

Let’s start with the most obvious reason: the kids weren’t just painting on a canvas. They were crafting the very first model in their miniature army, which gave them a sense of pride and ownership. This was most evident when I told them, “You guys are free to paint in whatever colour scheme you prefer. This is your own space marine/gryph-hound. It’s unique to you, and no one else in the world has yours.” You could see the eager anticipation in their eyes when they heard that! Because of this, they put in extra effort, and were especially mindful of how they base coated their models.

Another reason I gathered was that miniatures feel more lifelike, compared to just painting on a canvas. Whereas the latter is probably nice to look at and hang up on the wall, the former can be used as part of a diorama or a display piece. The children were practically tasked with bringing 3D characters to life, and that played a huge role on their intrinsic motivation.

To cut the long explanation short, the children were all able to focus and self-regulate due to an intrinsic desire to do well, particularly when told they were bringing a army/pet/guardian to life. It also helped that they were given plenty of positive feedback while watching themselves surpass their own expectations (Stipek, 1993). This was regardless of whether they were the hyperactive sort, or the type to drift easily.

After all, which kid doesn’t like to have an army/pet/guardian of his or her own?

Why the workshop was such a hit

Miniature Painting to build self-control and focus and mindfulnessAs explained above, miniature painting provides children with a great sense of fulfilment. Every colour they add, every stroke of the brush, all boils down to bringing their three-dimensional creation to life.

Furthermore, the workshop was unusually quiet for the first 20-30 minutes. This meant the kids experienced a very zen environment without any stress or pressure. It was a good exercise for those who are sensitive to sensory stimulations to practise tuning out external distractions.

Finally, the children were encouraged to experiment with various colour schemes. This gave them a lot of creative freedom, which they enjoyed a lot. Additionally, due to the quality of the miniatures, no matter what the kids did, their models would still end up with a look of reasonable quality. (Of course, I had to be there to ensure they didn’t go too wild with their colour schemes.)

Any caveats of miniature painting? And what other long-term benefits might there be?

Despite the roaring success of the workshops, there are caveats to consider. For one, it can be tough to convince some students to try it out, particularly those with lower self-esteem. For all of its lowered barriers to entry, miniature painting can still appear daunting at first glance.

Another point to take note of is that miniature painting can be costly. Most of the kids who attended the workshop have since bought more miniatures, and while I’m happy that they’re wholly engaged here as opposed to being glued to their phones, I do act as a gatekeeper to stop them from spending too much.

In spite of these caveats, the outcome has been overwhelmingly positive. The students who attended have seemingly become a lot more mindful, self-aware and prideful in their work. More importantly, those who did not know they could focus and concentrate on a given task, now know that they can.

Now, name me another hobby that can do that! 😉

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

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