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Supporting children with disabilities to be active

According to Disability Sport, over 750,000 children in the United Kingdom have some form of disability. This equates to 6% of all children. However, more recent statistics from the UK government suggest that the figure is actually around 9%.

The most common impairments among children are social or behavioural (37%). Disabled children face a number of barriers. These include access to education, access to healthcare, social exclusion, financial barriers and physical accessibility. One common problem disabled children and their families face is being unable to access physical activities.

The problems with accessing physical activity

Disabled children are often unable to join in with sports clubs and activities. Many people often presume that being physically disabled is the biggest problem with accessing activities. However, as we’ve seen by the statistics above, more than one-third of children who have a disability are affected socially or behaviourally.

This includes conditions like ADHD or Autism. These children, though physically able to take part in regular sporting activities for children their own age, are often unable to due to their condition. Even when clubs are deemed to be inclusive, some children are still not able to access the activities.

Thankfully, more and more organisations and charities have created sports clubs specifically for children with disabilities to enable them to be active and develop other skills too. One great example is ACCT (Autistic Children & Carers Together), a Sheffield-based charity that supports over 500 children in Sheffield with a range of activities, including their ACCT Academy football coaching that takes place weekly.

Children with autism doing physical activity

What are activities for children with disabilities?

Attitudes towards disability are changing, albeit slowly. Nowadays, there’s much more of a focus on what people can do as opposed to what they can’t.

Children with disabilities can participate in a range of physical activities, depending on their abilities and interests.

Here are some examples:

Adaptive sports

Many sports can be adapted to accommodate children with physical disabilities. Examples include wheelchair basketball, seated volleyball, powerchair football, blind cricket, wheelchair rugby and para-swimming.

Specially designed sports

Boccia and goalball are both Paralympic sports that have been designed specifically for athletes with disabilities.

Boccia is a precision ball sport that is similar to lawn bowls or pétanque. It is played by athletes with severe physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, who use specialised equipment to compete.

The objective of the game is to throw or roll a set of six red or blue balls as close as possible to a white target ball, called the jack. Players can either use a ramp to throw the ball or they can throw it with their hands or feet. Boccia requires a combination of strategy, accuracy and control, and can be played individually, in pairs, or in teams.

Goalball is a team sport designed for athletes with visual impairments. There are two teams of three players and all are blindfolded to ensure a level playing field. The objective of the game is to roll a ball with bells inside it across the opponent’s goal line while the opposing team tries to block the ball with their bodies. The court is divided into three sections, with players required to stay within their own section while defending their goal.

This sport requires a high level of teamwork, communication and spatial awareness. Goalball is played at both national and international levels.

Both boccia and goalball have provided opportunities for disabled athletes to participate in sports and physical activity, as well as showcasing the abilities and achievements of disabled athletes. They have also helped to promote inclusivity and break down barriers to participation for disabled people in sports and physical activity.

Physical activities for children with disabilities

Besides sports, there are lots of physical activities that children with disabilities are able to enjoy, depending on their individual abilities and interests.

Activities in a school setting

Some disabled children will attend special schools where physical activities are designed and tailored to meet individual needs.

Here are some physical activities they might take part in:

  • Parachute games.
  • Puzzles.
  • Yoga and stretching.
  • Dance.
  • Equine therapy.
  • Swimming and hydrotherapy.
  • Outdoor activities like forest school, hiking, farm activities and woodland walks.

Activities in a home setting

At home, parents and carers of disabled children can find it difficult to come up with physical activities for their child to enjoy.

Here are some ideas:

  • Chair activities – These are activities that can be done while seated. They might involve movements like arm curls, leg lifts or torso twists.
  • Yoga – This can be adapted for different abilities. This is a great activity for developing strength, flexibility and balance. There are lots of videos online to help practise this activity at home.
  • Dance – This is a fun and accessible activity for children with disabilities. It can be done standing or seated.
  • Wii games – The Nintendo Wii offers a range of games that can be played just with a handheld controller, which is a fun way of being active at home.
  • Balloon volleyball – All children love balloon volleyball! It’s great for improving hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills yet it doesn’t require a lot of strength.
  • Stretching – This can be done anywhere and is great for developing flexibility and mobility. It is greatly beneficial for those with conditions like spina bifida or cerebral palsy.
  • Trampolining – For children who need to burn off a lot of energy like those with ADHD. Also, lots of children who are autistic benefit from jumping activities like trampolining too.
  • Blowing bubbles – Children love bubbles and, for some, this is a great exercise as it can be good for strengthening the lungs.
Equine therapy at school

How much physical activity do children with a disability need?

The amount of physical activity that children need varies depending on the type and severity of their disability. Generally speaking, though, disabled children should aim to achieve at least the same amount of physical activity as those without disabilities. This is a minimum of 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Moderate and vigorous will mean different things to different children, depending on their capabilities.

Physical activity should be tailored to children’s individual needs and abilities – a child diagnosed with autism, for example, might be able to cope with 60 minutes per day quite easily. A child with cerebral palsy, however, might struggle with this amount.

Depending on the disability type and severity, children will often require modifications or adaptations to activities. A physiotherapist or another healthcare professional might be able to work with parents and children to develop an appropriate exercise programme.

Guidelines for different ages

The amount and type of physical activity that children with disabilities need can vary based on their age, as well as their individual needs and abilities.

  • Infants and toddlers
    Infants should be encouraged to engage in tummy time and other types of supervised play that encourage movement and exploration. Toddlers can engage in free play and structured activities, such as dance or gymnastics classes, that help develop coordination and balance.
  • Pre-schoolers
    Pre-schoolers need at least 3 hours of physical activity per day. For those able, activities such as running, jumping, climbing and playing with balls and other toys can help develop gross motor skills. For children with physical disabilities, activities that develop their muscle tone can be incorporated into play, for example.
  • School-age children
    School-age children should aim for at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, which can include sports, games and other structured activities. They can also engage in unstructured play and physical activity, such as riding bikes or playing tag with friends. For those with physical disabilities, adapted games can be used to encourage movement, coordination and balance.
  • Adolescents
    Adolescents with disabilities should aim for at least one hour of physical activity per day, which can include sports, fitness classes, and other structured activities. They may also enjoy more independent physical activities, such as going for a run or working out at a gym.

It’s important to note that these guidelines are general recommendations, and the amount and type of physical activity that children with disabilities need will vary based on their individual abilities and interests.

It’s also important for parents and caregivers to work with healthcare professionals to develop an appropriate exercise programme for their child. Many disabled children will have an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) and this might include provisions for physical activities.

How to introduce physical activities to disabled children

You may need some modifications and adaptations to ensure that the activities are accessible and safe before introducing physical activities to a disabled child.

Here are some tips:

1. Start introducing physical activities as early as possible. This will have benefits for the child’s physical abilities and also their routine.

2. Start with simple, fun activities. Introduce physical activities that are fun and engaging for the child. This can help build their confidence and motivation to continue participating in physical activity.

3. Use adaptive equipment. Consider using adaptive equipment or assistive technology to make physical activities more accessible. This may include items such as wheelchairs, walkers, or specialised sports equipment.

4. Modify activities to fit the child’s abilities. Modify physical activities to fit the child’s abilities and needs. For example, if a child has difficulty with balance, consider modifying an activity to be done seated or with support.

5. Provide encouragement and support. Encourage the child to participate in physical activities and provide positive feedback and support. Celebrate their successes and help them set achievable goals to continue building their skills and confidence.

6. Work with healthcare professionals like a physiotherapist or adaptive sports coach to develop a safe and appropriate exercise programme for the child. They can provide guidance on specific activities and modifications that may be needed.

What are the benefits of physical activities for disabled children?

Physical activity can provide a wide range of benefits for children with disabilities. Like for all people, physical activity helps improve cardiovascular health, muscular strength and endurance as well as overall physical function. For children with cystic fibrosis, for example, physical activities are encouraged to help clear the lungs of mucus.

Besides the physical benefits, disabled children can benefit from improved mental health. The effects of physical activity can help to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety, which can be particularly beneficial for children who have additional challenges to their peers.

Taking part in physical activities in a group setting can also provide opportunities for disabled children to socialise with others. This allows them to develop important social skills.

Other benefits of physical activities include improved self-esteem and better academic performance.

By being physically active in a way that is appropriate for the individual, a disabled child can improve their quality of life and overall well-being.

It’s important to note that the specific benefits of physical activity for children with disabilities will vary based on their individual needs and abilities. However, by making sports or physical activity a regular part of a child’s routine, the child can experience a wide range of benefits that can positively impact their health, well-being and quality of life.

Physical activity helping emotional wellbeing

Barriers to physical activity in disabled children

There are several barriers that can prevent or limit physical activity participation in children with disabilities. The most common barrier for children with physical disabilities is accessibility.

This includes facilities, equipment and programmes that are not accessible or inclusive for children with a disability. This might mean a building is not accessible, that there is a lack of adaptive equipment or assistive technology, or it might mean there isn’t an appropriately trained staff member to support children.

Another barrier is attitudes and beliefs. There is often an assumption that children with a disability are unable to take part in physical activities. Some families might also be hesitant to allow their children to participate in an activity due to their concerns about safety or risk of injury.

It’s important to address barriers in order to create more inclusive and accessible physical activity opportunities for children with disabilities. This might mean finding more inclusive activities or working with providers of activities to find ways for a disabled child to access their provision.

Guidelines on physical activity for disabled children

To summarise, the guidelines for physical activity for disabled children are similar to those for non-disabled children, with some modifications and adaptations to suit individual needs and abilities.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. This can be done in short bouts of 10-15 minutes throughout the day.
  • Include activities that promote strength, flexibility and balance at least three times a week. This can include activities such as resistance training, yoga and tai chi.
  • Choose activities that are enjoyable and appropriate for the child’s abilities and interests. This can help promote long-term participation in physical activity.
  • Encourage participation in inclusive physical activity programmes and facilities, where possible. These programmes and facilities should be accessible and welcoming to children with disabilities.
  • Work with healthcare professionals, such as a physiotherapist or adaptive sports coach, to develop an exercise programme that is safe and appropriate for the child’s individual needs and abilities.
  • Monitor and adjust the exercise programme as needed to ensure safety and effectiveness.

The specific physical activity guidelines for disabled children will vary based on the child’s individual needs and abilities. Consulting with healthcare professionals is crucial in order to develop an exercise programme that is both safe and appropriate for the child.

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About the author

Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.



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