Friendship Circle Logo
Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang

10 Ways a Child with Special Needs Can Have an Active Lifestyle

Fitness and active lifestyles for people with disabilities are hot topics of late due to the recent Disability Summit at the White House.  The fact is that an active lifestyle is elusive for many people with disabilities due to physical limitations, lack of accessibility, sensory issues and socioeconomic status.

Elusive, but not impossible.

Over the years, I’ve seen the cognitive and physical benefits of exercise in my son.  Exercise is a tool for personal growth as well as an excellent way to learn more about the local community. These are some of the ways in which I have included my son with special needs in an active lifestyle.

1. Model & Motor

When my son was younger, I had to model movements for him and physically guide his limbs through each movement, “motoring” him through a routine.  As he gradually developed body awareness, he was able to move more comfortably on his own.  We both got a good workout by stretching, hopping and crawling together.

2. Turkey Trot

Autumn is the season for community Turkey Trots across the USA.  These are typically family-friendly 5K run-walks sponsored by a non-profit or civic organization with a small registration fee.  If the fee is a hardship, it may be waived in many cases. When we do the Turkey Trot, we typically walk with a pack of families pulling wagonloads of children in a friendly, cheerful environment.  Another family-friendly 5K walk that we never miss is, of course, the Walk4Friendship at the end of the summer!

3. TrampolineTrampoline Jumping

Trampoline jumping strengthens several muscle groups, and most children do not consider it exercise.  If you have safety concerns about a trampoline, consider getting a mini-trampoline with a hand rail.  We got our mini-trampoline for $10 at a garage sale.

4. Friendship Circle’s Inclusion Sports League

My son participated in the Friendship Circle’s Inclusion Sports League for a few years so that he could learn more about sports in a sensory-friendly, well-supervised environment.  Twice a week, he was paired with a typical teenager to learn the skills needed for floor hockey and basketball, and every class ended with a game.  In the games, each participant had the opportunity to try to score.  My son stopped attending the Inclusion Sports League because he decided to join the school track team instead!

5. Play Catch

A baseball and a couple of gloves can go a surprisingly long way toward promoting wellness and fitness.  In addition to helping with gross motor skills, attention and hand-eye coordination, it’s a beautiful way to enjoy the outdoors.

6. Homemade Bootcamp

One of my friends from the Friendship Circle became an inspiration to me when she created a customized boot camp at home for her child with special needs.  At my house, “boot camp” consists of an obstacle course and instructions written on the sidewalk in chalk: run, hop, jump. An exercise routine can be adapted for any special needs, and You Tube has many videos for seated workouts, such as this one from

7. High-interest field trips Active Lifestyle for individuals with special needs

My specialty as a parent is finding high-interest day trip destinations where my children can walk, run, stretch or climb until they are tired.  I don’t tell them that we are actually exercising! In warm weather we usually go to a park or zoo, and in cold weather, we usually go to a museum.  I discovered that even a quiet art museum can provide a great workout with its long corridors and stairs.

8. Neighborhood Bike Ride

A bike ride after dinner is one of our favorite summer activities.  If you think bike riding is not a possibility, then you haven’t seen the adaptive bikes that the Friendship Circle gives away every year!

9. Fly a KiteKite Flying

The destination for our neighborhood bike rides is often an open field where we can fly a kite.  This activity is ideal for children who are reluctant to exercise.  The only way to get that kite up in the air is to get a good running start!  Winding and unwinding the kite string helps develop large muscles in the shoulders, too.  An informal kite club meets every week at a very windy field near us, so kite-flying can be a social experience, too.

10. Swimming

Water can provide calming sensory input, so the indoor pool at our local rec center is on our rotating list of field trip destinations, even in winter.  Call ahead to find out if your local pool has a wheelchair lift or zero-depth entrance for easy access.  The zero-depth entrance also works well for those who are fearful of water.

WRITTEN ON October 19, 2014 BY:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"