Doctor and researchers use Japanese strategy game Go to help children with developmental disabilities

From The Chunichi Shimbun via The Japan Times

July 9th 2018

In a new approach to helping children with developmental disabilities, a doctor who is also a Go enthusiast has been using the strategy game to augment his efforts.

Toru Masaoka, 85, is head of Kansai Kiin, an association of professional Go players in Osaka, and has been piloting “Go therapy” with children. Recently he began collecting medical data on the approach.

“I hope we can cooperate internationally to better understand the effects of Go,” Masaoka said.

The leukemia specialist, formerly chief of the Japan Marrow Donor Program and an adviser to the Osaka International Cancer Institute, assumed the top post with Kansai Kiin in June last year.

Masaoka is a high-level amateur Go player, having taken up the board game as an elementary school student under the tutelage of his older brother.

Children with developmental disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and Asperger’s syndrome, often have difficulty communicating with others or lack social skills, and tend to have negative perceptions of themselves.

Go is believed to be effective in helping such children learn how to better communicate with others, and nurture sociability and self-respect.

Challenge Kids Takarazuka, an after-school day care facility for children with developmental disabilities in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, has adopted go as one of 40 activities for the children, along with speech, writing and arithmetic. Amateur Go players from Kansai Kiin have been visiting the facility once a week on a volunteer basis since March 2016 to teach the game.

When the program began, just two out of some 10 children at the facility participated. But after a year, all ended up taking part. At first, the volunteers offered one-on-one lessons lasting 15 minutes, but now half-hour lessons are provided to two children at the same time.

Some of the kids can now play matches on their own, and in some cases even take on the challenge of isshokugo (one-color Go), in which both players use stones of the same color and have to remember which ones belong to them. In standard Go matches, one player uses black stones and the other white, aiming to take up more territory and surround their opponent on the wooden board.

Some of the children even plan to take part in a Go tournament this year to gain more experience in the game.

“Developmental disabilities are inborn issues related to brain functions,” said Masaoka’s younger brother, Satoshi, a 72-year-old psychiatrist who supports the activities. “Research on such disabilities has become active only in recent years and there are many things yet to be explained. There are no established rehabilitation methods and we are still learning by trial and error.

“We don’t know until we try which therapy works well for a specific child. Therapies are more effective if you start from a younger age. It is important to try various things at an early stage.”

Nurses and clinical psychologists at Satoshi Masaoka’s clinic have created a team to collect data through counseling and testing the children taking part in the Go therapy.

A variety of therapies have proved effective for developmental disabilities, including building with blocks, sandplay (a nonverbal therapy that makes use of a sandbox to create scenes of miniature worlds that reflect inner thoughts and struggles), painting and playing musical instruments. But Go, also known as shudan (conversing by hand), is a highly communicative game with simple rules that can be played even by young children.

Toru Masaoka plans to make the first presentation of his research at the Japan Go Congress, which is scheduled to start Friday in Takarazuka.

“Some Go players who have succeeded as professionals are believed to have developmental disabilities,” he said. “It’s important to support each child by understanding his or her characteristics at an early stage. I want to make go therapy a big movement during my lifetime.”

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