Exercise and Active Play for Children with Special Needs
GameTime has long been a pioneer in developing inclusive play environments. Our parent company, PlayCore, is a thought leader in this area with numerous publications, programs and resources to help parents, teachers and communities encourage inclusive play on and off the playground. As we wrap up our series of articles for National Exercise with Your Child Week, we turn our focus to finding ways to help children with special needs engage in active play and to helping parents play along with them.
How Do Special Needs Affect a Child's Ability to Play?
The term "special needs" is broad and includes a wide range of disabilities and disorders. Each affects a child's ability to participate in active play in different ways. A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example, may become overstimulated by noise and visual input or lack the attention span or patience to engage in complex games. A child with Down syndrome may not have the muscle strength or coordination to participate in running or climbing activities. Children with hearing loss or speech impairments may need extra support when playing in a group setting. As a parent of children who are both typically developing and with special needs, the challenge becomes finding activities that equally engage and benefit each child.
Be Flexible and Be Patient
As with most things involving children with special needs, the key is to be flexibility. Some activities must be adapted to ensure they are safe, enjoyable and attainable for a child with special needs. It will take longer for some children to learn how to climb a ladder, catch a ball or ride a bicycle. In some cases, your child may show a great deal of proficiency but lack the attention span or patience to participate for long periods. Here are some tips to make sure children of all abilities can play and stay active:
- Use positive reinforcement. If a child becomes frustrated, they will quickly disengage. Encourage them to keep trying, but know when to try something new.
- Find activities they enjoy. Children will gravitate to activities they naturally feel comfortable doing or in which they find enjoyment. Find ways to participate in these activities more often. We set aside one day each week for our daughter to play at a playground she especially enjoys because it has activities that are adapted for her. Our other children know this is her day and the entire family looks forward to this day each week.
- Keep things in order and on schedule. This is especially important for children who become easily agitated or frustrated. The more they feel in control of the activity, the more likely they will enjoy it.
- There are no record keepers. Helping a child with special needs improve and progress at a particular activity is important, but reminding them of their previous accomplishments and encouraging them to improve upon it can backfire. If they fail to move past their last milestone they can become frustrated and refuse to participate. Keep working with them to improve, but don't make a point of setting personal bests.
- Don't force it. This is supposed to be fun. If a child doesn't want to play a certain sport, it's okay. Even if you were the star quarterback, they might not follow in your footsteps. Help them find something they enjoy. If you force them to do something they don't like, they may never try it again.
- Provide an emergency exit. Even if your child enjoys a particular activity, they may become frustrated, bored or tired without any warning. Make sure that whatever activity you choose can be quickly paused or ended if necessary. If our child has the option to stop when they want to, they gain a sense of control over the activity. While some parents feel this will encourage children to quit too soon, I have found the opposite to be true. In organized sports, like recreation league soccer, we call it "the escape hatch." The kids know they have the option to stop if they need to and that gives them a greater sense of comfort while they play.
- Seek advice and help. Finding games and activities that are enjoyable for children with special needs isn't always easy. Depending on the circumstances, there may be very few physical activities in which they can participate or they may unwilling or unable to participate in team sports or games. Most communities offer recreational sports leagues designed for children with special needs with coaches who are trained to adapt play for each child. Parks and schools around the country are starting to build inclusive playgrounds and play environments that provide accessible and universally-designed play activities that allow children of all abilities to play together. Talk with your local community center, park and recreation department or University about programs and resources for children with special needs.
Above all else, remember the point is to help children be more active and to have fun. It doesn't matter if you are going to the playground or joining a softball team, you have to get this part right. Find something your child enjoys. Find a way to participate with them. Make it enjoyable and don't worry about how successful they are. If they want to play Wii Sports indoors, grab a controller and play along. If they want to run around the yard or dance in the kitchen, lace up your shoes or turn on the music. No matter what label a doctor or therapist has put on a child, no matter what disability or disorder challenges them, they are a child. They deserve to play and to have fun. Help them do just that.