Sports and Children with Special Needs

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

About 18% of children in the U.S. have a disability or chronic condition. Special needs children are sometimes not encouraged to exercise because their parents or guardians fear they'll be hurt. But physical activity is as important for special needs children, as it is for any child.

Boy flexing biceps

Participating in sports can help instill a sense of self-confidence and improve skills in relationship building and working as part of a team. And it can help in weight management, a common problem among today's kids.

The benefits of sports

The benefits of regular physical activity are many:

  • Better overall fitness

  • Improved cognitive benefits

  • Better control of weight

  • Healthier bone density

  • Better emotional and psychological health

  • Improved social skills

  • Improved motor skills

  • Improved self-esteem

  • Reduced risk for diseases such as diabetes

  • Reduced risk for some types of cancers

Types of sports for special needs children

Just about any sport or activity can be modified to allow special needs children to get the cardiovascular, flexibility, and strength-training benefits that allow kids to stay healthy and fit. Children in a wheelchair, for instance, can play basketball or tennis. Children without the use of limbs or those with mental disabilities can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.

Sports and activities especially good for special needs children:

  • Swimming

  • Bicycling

  • Soccer

  • Football

  • Handball

  • Gymnastics

  • Boccia

  • Weightlifting

Some sports don't require any modification. For instance, the buoyancy felt in the water while swimming offers a sense of freedom for wheelchair-bound children. Other activities can be modified to make them a better fit. Therapeutic riding programs, for example, can help children learn to ride a horse with proper instruction and the use of special devices to keep them safe, whatever their special needs might be. Competition-level participation is available, as well, with a variety of wheelchair sports teams and leagues, plus the Special Olympics.

Getting started with sports

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

To ensure safety, first see to it that your child gets a complete physical exam to be certain that he or she is healthy enough to play the desired sport. Also make sure that the coach understands your child's disability and how it might affect the way he or she plays or takes instruction. The coach needs to know how to properly communicate and work with your child to make sports participation the positive, safe, and healthy experience it should be.