It is generally well-known that the benefits of physical activity and exercise for children are wide-ranging. Physical activity can help children maintain attention, sleep more effectively, maintain a healthy body weight, improve mental and emotional health, and perform better overall in educational activities. However, children with special needs may face unique barriers when it comes to engaging in physical activities. These barriers may be physical, cognitive, or social/emotional in nature. For many children with special needs, multiple skill areas may need to be adapted in order for full participation to occur. In this article, we will review the three major skill areas and adapted physical activity ideas for kids so that children of all abilities may participate.
Adapted Physical Activity Ideas – Physical Skills
In terms of physical skills, children with special needs may experience limited strength (fine motor or gross motor), limited range of motion, low endurance, below average coordination, or difficulty with balance. Physical activities require all of these skills in some capacity, which can make it difficult for children with deficits in these areas to fully engage or participate. Below is an outline of activity adaptations that address physical skills.
Strength and Range of Motion
- Consider the physical properties of the equipment used. For example, if using balls, the size of the ball could be reduced to accommodate limited gross motor strength or limited fine motor range of motion. Using a ball of a lighter weight, such as (the following are affiliate links) foam balls , plastic balls, or beach balls is another adaptation that can help with limited strength or range of motion.
- Parachute games can be an adapted activity for both limited strength and range of motion. Children can use one handle or two handles, depending upon their upper extremity strength. Parachute games can also be done sitting or standing, allowing for those with limited lower extremity strength to sit if needed. The up and down swaying of the parachute can help improve range of motion, but is easily altered for each child. Lightweight balls can be added to the top of the parachute and activities such as rolling the ball to a certain color on the parachute or working together to coordinate movements to toss the balls in the air are possibilities.
- Examine the area where the physical activity is going to occur. If possible, shorten the distance or playing area. For example, using only half or a quarter of the field if playing a game like soccer.
- Allow built-in rest periods. These can be offered at the child’s discretion, or at set intervals, depending up on the needs of the child.
- If using a target or a goal, make these larger so that less precise coordination is needed to be successful.
- Play games such as “pop the bubbles” or “catch the scarves.” For example, “catch the scarves” involves throwing scarves in the air and using visual tracking skills to catch the scarves as they fall back down. Activities that encourage visual tracking can help improve coordination and are a non-threatening way to begin exploring physical activities for children with special needs.
- Altering the environment is one of the most helpful ways to address balance. For example, using a carpeted area instead of a gym floor. The wall or external support like a chair can also be used as a source of support for children who need extra assistance with maintaining balance.
- Games, such as badminton or volleyball can be played in a sitting position if the child’s balance is highly affected. This allows for upper extremity physical activity, yet the seated position allows for consideration of balance. Using lighter weight balls during these types of activities may also be helpful (ex: beach ball instead of volleyball).
Adapted Physical Activity Ideas For Kids – Cognitive Skills
Physical activity and cognitive skills such as working memory, judgment, problem-solving, and attention are closely related. Several studies have shown that regular exercise has a direct, positive impact on the parts of the brain associated with executive function and cognition. During physical activity, children with cognitive special needs may present as having difficulty following directions, understanding the objective of the activity, or may need assist with comprehension of movement patterns needed to complete the activity. Below are some possible cognitive adaptations.
- -Teach one concept at a time and if needed, focus on solidifying foundational activities that are required in order to engage in the activity. For example, skills such as dribbling a soccer ball, shooting a basketball into a hoop, or learning how to hit a tennis ball with a racquet are foundational skills needed before being able to fully participate in the sport or activity.
- Provide opportunities to practice skills in a variety of settings. Learning is most effective when we are able to generalize skills to several areas. To help a child with cognitive special needs, it is important to emphasize generalization of the physical activity across environments. For example, the child would benefit from practicing the skill or skill component at home, in the classroom setting, in recreational programming, etc. Repetition is also highly linked to skill generalization.
Visual and Verbal Prompts
Use verbal or visual prompts or cues are important. These may vary depending upon the child’s unique needs. These adaptations may include:
- Placing visual cues such as darkened masking tape to highlight targets or goals.
- Using visual cues, such as arrows or another distinguishing mark to denote the direction of movement required for the activity. For example, placing arrows on the ground leading up to the goal in a game of soccer.
- Provide the child with an external cue, such as a checklist or visual of the required sequence of activities.
Social/Emotional Skills and Adaptive Physical Activity Ideas For Kids
Just as cognitive skills are highly related to physical activity, the same is true for social/emotional skills. Children who regularly engage in physical activity have been found to be more successful with regulating their emotions and effectively using coping skills. A child with social/emotional deficits may have difficulty with tolerating frustration or distress, following social norms/rules, cooperation, etc. These skills can all have a direct impact on physical activity engagement. We will take a look below at some ways to potentially modify physical activities for difficulties with social/emotional skills.
- If possible, allow options or a menu of activities for the child to engage in. These may be group or individual activities, depending upon the situation and the child’s needs. Allowing for choice gives the child a sense of control, which can help them feel more emotionally regulated.
- For children who struggle with social skills, use smaller teams for sports activities. This allows for more one-on-one skill practice and decreases the chances that the child will feel socially overwhelmed.
- Be explicit with rules or norms of the game or activity. It may be helpful to engage in a discussion about the rules or expectations before beginning or have them written and posted as a visual cue for all team members.
- Focus on skill practice and improvement instead of “winning” during team sports or physical activities. When the focus is placed on individual skill development, there may be more internal motivation for the child and also takes the emphasis off of competitiveness, which is often a trigger for children with social/emotional difficulties.
- Give verbal praise for trying a new activity and use preferred activities as an incentive or motivation after trying a new activity or exercise.
- If the child has difficulty with self-esteem or accepting failure, assign the child to a position with inherent or known success. If a child has demonstrated success or accomplishment with a specific skill, it may be helpful to promote and highlight that skill area. This skill can be built upon by adding more complex tasks as the child is ready.
In conclusion, research indicates that physical activity is beneficial for children’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional well-being. A child with any type of special need is likely to face barriers when engaging in physical activity, however this should not be a deterrence from participation. There are several creative ways to adapt physical activities so that all children can engage and we hope this article highlighted the possibilities when it comes to adapted physical activity for kids ideas for the children you work with.
Ekeland, E., Heian, F., & Hagen, K.B. (2005). Can exercise improve self esteem in children and young people? A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39 (11), 792-798.
Mavilidi, M.F. et al. (2018). A narrative review of school-based physical activity for enhancing cognition and learning: The importance of relevancy and integration, Frontiers in Psychology,(2), 119-130.
Putnam, S.C., Tette, J., & Wendt, M. (2004). Exercise: A prescription for at-risk students. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 75(9), 25-29.