A new project seeks to combine Minecraft play with counselling to support children’s mental health

Tech for Good, an initiative launched by mental health charity North East Children, sees children and young people play video games, specifically Minecraft, as part of traditional counselling sessions.

The sessions, facilitated by trained counsellors, run alongside talking therapy and are thought to help children better manage their mental health challenges and support positive emotional wellbeing.

Tech for Good was born from one of Children North East’s Young People's Service counsellors, who noticed that due to the nature of the game - Minecraft allows players to create virtual versions of almost anything eg. castles, towns, schools, even their own homes - it could be essential to the therapeutic process, meeting children in their ‘safe space’ and allowing them to acknowledge their needs.

Because of its lack of storyline and direction of play, Minecraft players are free to determine how they interact with the game, fostering creativity.

A 2017 study by Glasgow university linked playing Minecraft to future higher education success, finding that children who played the game demonstrated increased communication, adaptability and resourcefulness skills. But how does this support mental health?

Minecraft and mental health

“Minecraft is a vast and creative space and I, along with a number of other therapists, have been developing ways to provide boundaries and structure within the session,” says counsellor Ellie Finch.

“That way, it offers children a safe place to make sense of their feelings and difficulties, while also making good use of the game’s amazing resources and opportunities for adventure and discovery.”

Ellie notes that Minecraft is one of the world’s most popular ‘sandbox’ video games, a cross between Lego and a sand tray. These two resources are often used in the counselling setting to help children process and express their feelings.

“With a sand tray, the counsellor invites the child to choose from a selection of miniature figures and items and arrange or move them around the tray. The child uses the sand tray to create stories or scenes that might show the counsellor what is going on in the child’s internal and external world. Minecraft can be considered a virtual version of these tools.”

Minecraft is thought to be particularly helpful for children who are autistic as it challenges perceptions of the world. By stripping back social factors such as eye contact and background noise that are known to challenge autistic people, multiplayer mode provides a platform for autistic children to make friends without boundaries, form special relationships and improve essential social skills.

The project is currently in phase one of its development. Part of phase one, the discovery phase, sees the charity working with children and young people to gather their views of working with Minecraft to shape the delivery of the new programme.

Funded by both Comic Relief and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the initiative received a £38,000 grant which will help facilitate the initial research stage. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for digital support services. Children North East received the digital development fund that aims to support charities to use technology to explore different approaches to delivering suitable support services.

Children North East is a Newcastle upon Tyne-based charity that supports local children and young people through many different challenges with therapeutic intervention such as counselling, mentoring and drop-in services. To find out more, visit children-ne.org.uk.