Summer Fun: Water Activities for those with Special Needs

Summer heat can be oppressive for everyone. One of the best ways to beat it is with water activities! You don’t need a pool for your child with special needs to enjoy the benefits water play can offer this summer. Water is singular in its ability to energize and simultaneously soothe, making it the perfect therapeutic asset for those with starved or overactive sensory systems. Plan games and motor skills activities in the water this summer to help your child enjoy the season while learning and improving motor functions!

The Benefits of Water Therapy and Water-Based Activities

Since play is the main way children synthesize learning, giving your child tasks designed around water can be therapeutic and fun. The CDC recognizes water-based exercise as beneficial for our mental health. A study in the National Library of Medicine found that, “Parents of children with developmental disabilities find that recreational activities, such as swimming, improve family connections.”

Being submerged in water makes us feel weightless, an especially exhilarating sensation for children with physical disabilities impeding movement. Floating can relieve pain caused by stress on the joints or pressure points from wheelchairs, crutches, and other movement apparatus.

Water-resistance is also a joint-friendly form of exercise perfect for helping your child develop muscle strength, balance, cardiovascular endurance, coordination, and even social skills. Inviting peers to join motor skills activities can help your child with special needs build confidence and lasting relationships. Water can be an equalizer for children with physical disabilities, making interactions with other children easier.

Safety First

We know you don’t need to be reminded, but  taking extra safety precautions when your child with special needs is in the water is worth reiterating. Swimming vests, floaties, and other floatation devices are critical if they are not a confident swimmer. Always ensure adult supervision during submersion.

Motor Skills Activities for Water Play

Pool Noodles

Skin is the largest and most sensitive organ in — more accurately, on — our bodies. Providing pool noodles of different shapes, sizes, and textures can present the opportunity to enjoy different tactile experiences. Smooth noodles, bumpy noodles, ridged noodles, noodles made out of foam or plastic: There are dozens of options to help stimulate your child’s sensory system.

Have your child ride the noodle like a horse. He can “ride” the horse across the length of the pool, “feed” the horse from a water bucket, and “ride” back to the starting point. Moving back and forth several times is an excellent aerobic exercise, and enacting a string of tasks is great for cognitive function.

Bending a pool noodle into a U shape makes a swing your child can balance on. This activity can improve balance and core strength. To up the ante, toss a ball back and forth together to develop hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

You can also use the pool noodle as a jump rope. Water-resistance means he has to work the arm muscles, keep his balance, and maintain his grasp on the noodle as he pushes it underwater.

Have your child hold onto a pool noodle and pull it across the water in different ways and at different speeds. Pull quickly, slowly, or zig-zag. He can lie on his back, belly, or side and pull from different angles. The different sensations will provide stimulation, and talking to him about what he liked best and why strengthens communication skills.

Flippers

Have your child use flippers to increase resistance and strengthen her leg muscles. This will also increase her speed in the water, which can be especially fun for those who have difficulty moving.

If your child is unable to use her legs, have her put the flippers on her hands. This is a silly subversion in the first place and may produce a giggle or two. It can also help develop arm muscle strength while improving her confidence in how well she moves through the water.

Pretend your child is on a scuba excursion and drop interesting things into the pool for her to swim and search for. Smaller objects can increase fine motor function as she works to pick them up. Holding her breath can increase cardiovascular endurance. Have her place each item in a bucket or “treasure chest” so she has to swim back and forth each time.

If she is good at holding her breath, have your child pretend to be a fish or mermaid and see how many different “moves” she can do: swimming without hands, rolling over, flipping, pretending her hands are gills, and anything else you can think of.

If your child is an excellent swimmer and you trust her under the water, you can add light cuff weights made especially for water exercise to increase resistance and muscle building.

Rafts

Inflatable rafts are excellent tools to aid floatation while sparking the imagination. Pretend your child is on a boat and push them across the pool. Have him hold a paddle and “canoe” around the pool. Paddling involves switching the paddle from one side to the other, exercising bilateral integration (using the arms together).

If your child loves tug boats or barges, have him make “deliveries” of small, lightweight items from one side of the pool to the other and unload the goods at different “ports.” Children with fixations on transportation may enjoy plotting out their “routes” while exercising their bodies.

More adventurous (or rebellious!) children can pretend to be pirates. Pretend lightweight balls are cannonballs and toss them at the raft. Dodging, watching the trajectory, and even tipping over can be very exciting and anticipatory.

Super Soakers

If you dislike guns, you do not have to integrate them into water play, but some options look nothing like actual firearms. Large water shooters are big enough to require both hands to use and fill, improving fine motor skills and bilateral integrations.

Setting up targets and having your child aim at a bull’s eye pattern, tree, or pot improves hand-eye coordination. This could be a great way to keep your plants watered in the summer!

Obstacle Course

Have your child hold onto a kickboard and swim around objects you placed in the pool. You can have them hold onto one kickboard or place a kickboard under each arm; both build arm, leg, and core strength. Set up “stations” with different activities.

You can have your child fill up a watering can and lift it to pour the water into a bucket on the pool ledge. Another station can include putting on socks or a t-shirt while in the water (harder than it sounds!). Swimming in wet clothing provides a new sensation and the weight may be comforting for some children.

Remember there is no wrong way to play in the pool. Virtually any activity will improve your child’s muscle strength and motor function.

If you do not have access to a pool, don’t worry. You can modify many of these activities for playing in a sprinkler, kiddie pool, or even sink or bathtub. They still reap the benefits of water therapy, and most importantly, they are having fun! You are helping your child build memories — and skills — to last a lifetime.

For More Information

Looking for more motor skills activities for your child or a special needs child daycare in Little Rock? Integrity, Inc. has been providing services for children and adults with special needs to the Central Arkansas community since 1989. Contact Integrity, Inc. at (501)406-0442, or fill out our online form and we will get back to you!

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