RACINE - Twelve-year-old Nikolas Hufen can control computer games with his mind.
Without touching the mouse or keyboard, Nikolas last Wednesday started a computer game and got objects on the screen to light up.
Nikolas, of Racine, was able to do so because of a portable EEG device strapped to his arm and connected to the computer by Bluetooth. The EEG measured Nikolas's brain waves and when they showed focus and concentration, the game became active. In some cases his brain waves actually made characters on the screen move.
As cool as that may sound, Nikolas wasn't playing the game for fun. He was playing for focus.
The game is one of several that make up the Play Attention program, used to help children with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder learn to focus and stay on task. Nikolas, who has ADD and is homeschooled, demonstrated Play Attention Wednesday at St. Lucy Parish School, which began using the program for students this fall.
St. Lucy Principal Rudee Koepke brought Play Attention to the school after her own children saw success with it. Their grades got better, homework got done faster and teachers reported they stayed on track more in class.
That's because the Play Attention games require brain focus to work and then use pattern and repetition activities to get kids practicing continued focus, memory and paying attention. The idea is those skills stick with children for use in the classroom, said Mark Hufen, Nikolas's dad and a licensed professional counselor specializing in ADD.
Of kids who use Play Attention, about 75 percent pay better attention in school and get better grades. Some even lose their ADD or ADHD diagnosis, Hufen said.
Koepke hopes to see such results at St. Lucy's, 3035 Drexel Ave., where seven students are taking part in Play Attention and even more students have interested parents.
"They consider this much more than a doctor wanting to medicate their children," Koepke said.
Starting Play Attention cost St. Lucy's about $10,000 in technology and training. Half was paid by the parish and the other half by an anonymous donor, Koepke said.
Play Attention is based on NASA programs for helping astronauts focus on long missions. In one Play Attention game, students' focus makes a dolphin swim deeper and deeper to collect treasure; it teaches paying attention for longer periods of time. In another game, students' focus lights up random squares on the screen that they must then click in the appropriate order; it practices visual tracking and short-term memory.
Nikolas played the squares game Wednesday.
"The games were kinda difficult and a bit confusing (at first)," said Nikolas, who has been using Play Attention for more than a year. "My focusing got easier as my brain learned if I do this, this is what happens."
Now the games are simpler and Nikolas has learned to ignore distractions like his brothers and sisters who sit near him for homeschooling.
"I'm able to block that out," he said, adding what he learns in the games stays with him. "It doesn't wear off."