There’s a reason there are so many motivational channels, blogs and websites out there that try to inspire people to workout. It’s simple: People think that fitness is hard and boring. They feel like they need motivation, or that they need to be tricked into working out. And we know that it can be hard, if you’re not in the right mindset, but that the results and benefits definitely outweigh the initial I-don’t-wannas. For kids, fitness can seem even more daunting, a grownup’s activity. But kids are playing outside less and less often these days, so natural, “fun” exercise is falling by the wayside. For children with special needs, the likelihood of active play is even lower. Here’s how you can make fitness fun for kids with special needs:
Who doesn’t love to sing? Even those of us who can’t carry a tune enjoy keeping time with the singers on the track. Most songs aimed at children are big hits among those with special needs, and most of those same songs usually have simple “dance” moves that go with them. “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” is the perfect song and warm up before your client’s exercise routine. You can also do “I’m a Little Teapot,” “Button Factory,” “Hokey Pokey,” “YMCA,” and “The Macarena!”
Even adults will tell you, jokingly but also with a heavy layer of honesty, that the only reason they’ll run is if someone is chasing them. Tag is exactly that scenario, but in a fun, much less threatening setting. If your client or child is in a wheelchair or has gait problems, you can also try rolling tag, where you lay down on the ground and roll to try to tag the other person. (This version of the game is best played indoors to avoid bug bites and grass allergies!)
Who doesn’t love to swing? Swinging isn’t just fun and games though. It’s also a great core workout: curling the legs in to swing back, then stretching the legs out to swing forward. This is essentially doing crunches in the air! If your client or child has balancing problems, consider getting a vestibular swing. It’s not only fun, but it’s also a great way to help them find their center of gravity.
Jumping, if you’re properly motivated, can be a very fun way for a kid to get exercise. A mini trampoline and some bumping music in the background can make for a pretty fun 20-minute cardio exercise. You can also lay out a rug with letters on it and ask your client or child to show off their alphabet skills by jumping to certain letters. Kids in wheelchairs or with gait issues can sit on trampolines and bounce to engage in both a core and cardio exercise.
Playing catch is an amazing way to exercise hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. You can start off by slowing tossing a large ball to your client or child and getting them to catch it with both hands. If you want to build strength at the same time, you can (slowly) toss a medicine ball back and forth. As this becomes easier, you can throw a smaller and smaller ball back and forth to one another, or even have them bounce a ball off a wall and catch it!
Roller skating, riding a bike, skateboarding — all are fun activities that promote a healthy heart! Those with mobility issues can simply sit on a skateboard and use their arms to push them around. You can create little obstacle courses for your client or child in a wheelchair to make getting their cardio in fun and playful.
Kids love to show off their counting skills! See how high your client or child can count while they exercise. Sure, they can count to 10, but can they count to 10 sit ups? Push ups? Jumping jacks? Counting can turn even the simplest exercise into a fun challenge.
In the same vein as our previous point, you can make simple, general exercises exciting by asking your client or child to do them ONLY when you “Simon Says!” “Simon says do a push up. Simon says stop. Simon says stand up. Sit down. You lose!” Now, of course, you’ll want to make “losing” a way of encouraging them to try again. Get creative with the prizes and consequences! We do not recommend using food as a prize though.
When was the last time you played Twister? It’s actually a pretty serious workout, and it’s crazy, silly fun! Think yoga but game-ified. The newer version of the game doesn’t just tell the players, “Right hand on red.” It also has commands like, “Hop on one foot,” “Hold on your left foot in the air,” and offers the spinner the opportunity to come up with fun commands of their own.
Swimming is probably one of the most intense full-body workouts you can get, regardless of your age or abilities. Swimming laps, doing different strokes, or playing Marco Polo or Chicken are all great ways to stay active in the way, and a fun way to get fit.
Stretching is a wonderful way to cool down after a workout. Deep stretching burns in the best way and provides an instant rush of endorphins when you could out of them. This simple exercise isn’t “fun” in the active, running-around kind of way, but it feels good and signals that it’s time to relax, and that playtime is over. It makes for a much smoother transition!
Want to Make Fitness Even More Fun?
Whether you’re a personal trainer, a group fitness instructor, or a parent of a child with special needs, you can take playtime to the next level by getting a fitness certification through Strong Education. Our courses cater to every type of learning style, and the workouts we teach are explicitly targeted to those with special needs, improving flexibility, balance, endurance, strength, motor skills, and more.
Strong Education teaches personal trainers and service providers on how to adapt fitness and nutrition for children, adolescents, and adults with autism, Down Syndrome, and other disabilities through our online adaptive special needs certification course.