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Ilana Danneman
BY Ilana Danneman

Let’s Get Wet: The Benefits of Water Play for Children with Special Needs

It’s summer, and though you don’t have to own a pool (which can provide a full-body water experience), water activities are a tremendous asset to a starved or overactive sensory system. Water can energize, and yet it can also calm. Water therapy can come in a variety of forms, from staring at a bubble tube, swimming, aquatic therapy, a shower or bath, and washing dishes at the sink to a great rainy day and puddle-stomping. You can also head to the beach, lake, river, or creek.

Just this past week, I found myself canyoning down a waterfall in Costa Rica. Though that may seem extreme, the new experience, which was challenging to say the least, provided a keen awareness to a challenged sensory motor system and a deep appreciation for the great outdoors and creation (not to mention my ability to stay upright!).

Let’s look at a few ways to maximize your child’s time near or in the water this summer.

Pool Therapy

If you are heading to the pool with your sensory avoider, try encouraging him or her to get wet first. This will not only keep your pool maintenance people quite happy, but also allow your child’s sensory system to adjust before a full plunge. You can wet a small towel and rub your child down; take a shower before coming out to the pool; or just sit by the side and let your child kick and splash near the edge. If you have a scheduled time, you may want to get to the pool a bit early to allow your child to adjust before going into a full aquatic therapy session.

Baby Pools

Though not always the most sanitary of pools (check first), a baby pool can afford an emergent walker an opportunity to work on gait training and balance skills using a ring or float, much like a floor walker. Kids who are more advanced can walk and play around without the ring. Do not assume that your baby pool is safe; you’ll want to keep your eyes on your little one. Still, a baby pool is a great place to learn to put your face in the water while finding objects on the bottom and to balance along the edge or while walking around.

Indoor Water Fun

You can get a lot out of your indoor water. Have your child help wash dishes and get the benefit of not only water contact but also new skills and pride in helping out (even if you do have to wash them again). You can also get a sand or water table and some space sand to use for a great hands-on sensory experience. And don’t forget to maximize your bathtub or shower as a place for a great sensory workout.

Rainy Day

If you can catch a good rainy day, don’t pass it up. With buckets, sponges, and umbrellas, your kids can have a sensory blast out in the rain. You might just have to sit and watch, but if you need to go out in the rain too, do it. There’s nothing like a warm summer rain to calm the sensory system and heighten sensory awareness. Try puddle-stomping, singing in the rain, filling up buckets, and even playing with some squirt guns.

River Rocks

A trip to a river or creek with close supervision can be a sensory delight and encourage motor planning, balancing, and an appreciation for the great outdoors. Find a safe spot and allow your kids to walk across the rocks, wade out into the creek, or reach down and find small rocks. Watch the fish swim by or sit and observe the water flowing down. If you need to find a great spot near you, just Google, “creeks or rivers near me.”

Lakes Are Great

If you want to try a boating experience or fishing, head out to a lake nearby where these activities are available. Kayaking, canoeing, rowing, skiing, and swimming are great summer activities for everyone and can encourage motor planning, balancing, and sensory integration as well as body awareness and proprioception. You can ask for adapted lessons as well. While learning new skills or trying a new skill, our spatial awareness becomes more developed. Not only does this help now, but also can help prevent injuries in the future, as those subtle balance reactions are fine-tuned. Learning new skills is a great brain trainer for everyone.

No matter where you choose to find water, appreciate this wonderful gift and be safe using appropriate safety precautions and gear. Be patient, as a new skill can take many opportunities to perfect and to enjoy. And if you are specifically seeking sensory impact, allow yourself time to just experience and enjoy the outing.

Ilana Danneman

Written on July 7, 2017 by:

Ilana Danneman is a pediatric physical therapist with over 25 years experience in the special needs field developing 100's of products, blogging, providing customer education, and catalog direction. She has worked for both School Specialty and Fun and Function and currently is a contract blogger and product developer as well as home health pediatric and geriatric physical therapist. She is currently the owner of the idea therapist and can be reached at [email protected]