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Sports and Children with Special Needs

All children can benefit from the exercise, energy release, and pure enjoyment of playing sports. This includes children with special needs.

About 9 in 50 children in the U.S. have a disability or chronic health problem. Children with special needs are sometimes not encouraged to exercise. Their parents or guardians may fear they'll get hurt. But physical activity is as important for children with special needs as it is for any child.

Participating in sports can help boost self-confidence. It can also improve skills in relationship building and working as part of a team. And it can help in managing weight. This is a common problem among today's kids.

The benefits of sports

The benefits of regular physical activity are many:

  • Better overall fitness

  • Improved cognitive health

  • Better control of weight

  • Healthier bone density

  • Better emotional and psychological health

  • Improved social skills

  • Improved motor skills

  • More self-esteem

  • Reduced risk for diseases, such as diabetes

Types of sports for children with special needs

Just about any sport or activity can be altered to give children with special needs the cardiovascular, flexibility, and strength-training benefits that allow kids to stay healthy and fit. Children in wheelchairs, for instance, can play basketball or tennis. Children who can't use their limbs or those with mental disabilities can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.

Sports and activities especially good for children with special needs are:

  • Swimming

  • Bicycling

  • Soccer

  • Football

  • Handball

  • Gymnastics

  • Boccia

  • Weightlifting

Some sports don't need any changes. For instance, the buoyancy felt in the water while swimming offers a sense of freedom for children who use wheelchairs. Other activities can be changed to make them a better fit. Therapeutic riding programs, for instance, can help children learn to ride a horse with correct instruction. Also, these programs use special devices to keep children safe, whatever their special needs might be. Competition-level participation is available, too. There are a variety of wheelchair sports teams and leagues. A child can also take part in the Special Olympics.

Getting started with sports

Parents of children with special needs should encourage participation in sports and physical activity in general. Don't approach sports as something they can't do. Rather, guide them toward taking part in sports in which they can succeed and have fun doing so.

See to it that your child gets a complete physical exam. It helps make sure your child is healthy enough to play the desired sport. Also make sure that the coach understands your child's disability. He or she needs to know how it might affect the way your child plays or takes instruction. The coach needs to know how to correctly talk and work with your child to make sports participation the positive, safe, and healthy experience it should be. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Thomas N Joseph MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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