Functional Recreation for Children with Special Needs

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By Sandra Ellis, Student Occupational Therapist, McMaster University

Many parents of kids with special needs have concerns about involving their kids in recreational activities. Often parents wonder: Do the benefits of recreational activities outweigh potential risks?

This question reminds me of a topical issue in Hamilton, where an existing tobogganing ban was recently reinforced, due to the health and safety risks for children involved. While this bylaw has not been heavily enforced through ticketing, it has the potential to reduce the already limited winter recreational activities available to children (especially those accessible available to kids with motor or coordination challenges). This situation is a prime example of what can happen to recreation when the fear of risk is determined to outweigh the benefits.

Recreation is a huge part of young people’s lives – like we have jobs as adults, a child’s main job is to play. This is how kids learn certain skills, like social skills, that will become even more important later in life. Recreational activities such as biking, swimming, skating, and team sports (to name a few) are a great way to work on physical, social and cognitive skills like coordination, turn-taking, communication, and planning. Plus, if a child is able to participate in more activities with their peers, they can build self-esteem and independence.

Reaction can offer children many positive, developmentally important experiences. Success and failure are two vital learning curves in reaction activities. It is important for a child, just like it is for adults, to feel successful at something important to them – this builds confidence and life satisfaction. Equally, it can be beneficial for a child to not always succeed at new challenges because failures help us develop problem solving skills and perseverance, and makes the eventual success so much more rewarding!

However, it can scary to let our kids stumble a bit, so to speak. Many parents worry that their child with special needs may not be able to succeed at a particular recreational activity or that they may get hurt trying. This is when an Occupational Therapist might be able to help.

Occupational Therapists have a knack for breaking down challenging complex tasks into smaller manageable steps – we call this “task analysis”. Using this skill, an Occupational Therapist can work with kids to figure out how to modify the activity or the expected outcomes (making several smaller goals instead of one big goal). In doing so, an Occupational Therapist can create a program that allows for success and a reasonable amount of challenge, while creating a safe environment. By getting to know a child, and with input from parents, an OT can tell if the an activity needs to be modified based on how the child is performing on any given day. Sometimes a child may need to learn an activity in a different way than other kids or may need special equipment to participate – these are also things that Occupational Therapist’s can help with.

Functional recreation can be a great way for kids to develop important skills while being fun and fulfilling. If you are not sure about how to begin a recreational activity with your kiddo, are worried about how to do it safely, or if you notice that your child is having trouble learning the activity in the traditional way, it may be helpful to talk to an Occupational Therapist.

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