Finding the Right "Movement" for Your Child

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

In this day and age, we all know that physical activity is so important for children. It has become a focus in research and literature as we see children being less active because of electronic devices as well as seeing an increase in child obesity. The CDC reports that since the 1970s, the percentage of obese children has tripled ( At the same time, we find that many of our children with Sensory Processing Disorders (SPDs) do not participate in many sports or physical activities, which can be so beneficial to the sensory system.

As parents, it is important that we find activities that are fun, beneficial and meaningful for our children. However, we will often hear parents of children with SPDs say their child has no interest, or they are just not good at these organized activities. As a team, therapists need to help parents understand their child’s strengths and sensory profile to help identify which sports and activities can be beneficial to their physical development and social and emotional needs as well as their sensory processing needs. Physical activity and exercise can also help improve attention and focus, strengthen direction following and social skills, provide stress relief, and build self-confidence.

While we can highlight the importance of these activities, we need to realize that sometimes they seem near impossible due to other challenges our children may have, such as autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD and learning disabilities, as well as the overall competitiveness of many activities at such an early stage. It is important to seek out community resources, as many offer adapted sports or more instructional programs. Finding the right fit will help parents encourage participation with greater ease and confidence, making the experience fun and beneficial for the child.

Based on the sport or activity, a different level of coordination, strength and attention may be required, and it may fit the child’s energy level differently. For example, your high-energy, less-coordinated child may not find martial arts to be the best fit; however, playing soccer may be perfect. Although any movement and exercise is important for children, here are just a few highlighted benefits of common activities for our children with SPDs.

Yoga and martial arts—These require a great deal of attention and focus, while improving core stability and overall strength. Initially, these activities may be difficult for your high-arousal child who requires a lot of movement, but are a great goal to strive for. Although your child is part of a class, these require more of an individual focus versus being part of a team.

Sports such as basketball, volleyball, baseball, soccer, football and lacrosse—These are all team based and require a great deal of motor coordination, attention and direction following. Since these all involve the use of a ball, timing, sequencing and hand-eye coordination are key. To help children develop skills, all of these sports offer instructional programs that move at a slower speed than full competition.

Running and swimming—These are great proprioceptive and core-strengthening activities that are performed individually. When performed for prolonged amounts of time, focus and attention are important.

Outdoor play—Having children participate in activities such as bike riding, scooter boards and skating, as well as any playground activity, enhances balance, strength and coordination. By strengthening these areas, children become more confident in their skills, making organized activities and sports less difficult. If the anxiety of organized sports and activities is too much for your child at this time, start simple with a family-fun game of soccer in the front yard, a trip to the pool to swim, an afternoon at the playground, or even a fun, active, obstacle course created by all members of your family.

As you move into more organized activities, start at the level that meets your child where he or she is, and move toward the ideal sport that offers the “just right challenge” and right amount of fun for your child…there is a right activity fit for every child!

*Some information was gathered from OT Practice, June 4, 2012, issue.