Why physical activity is important for children with disability
Being physically active each day is good for all children, including children with disability. It’s vital for children’s health, wellbeing and development, now and in the future.
- improves children’s physical fitness and strengthens their bones, muscles, hearts and lungs
- improves children’s movement and coordination skills including balance, posture and flexibility
- helps children stay at a healthy weight
- boosts children’s immune systems
- reduces children’s risk of high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes.
Physical activity also boosts wellbeing and reduces children’s risk of anxiety and depression. That’s because active children are more likely to:
- be confident and independent, have healthy self-esteem and feel like they belong
- feel relaxed and sleep well
- have better concentration, attention, memory and organisational skills
- get along with others and find it easier to make friends
- share, take turns and cooperate.
Children with disability can do many sports and physical activities. Many sports and other activities have been modified so that children with disability can fully participate. Full and meaningful participation and inclusion in sport and other community activities is one of the rights of children with disability.
Types of physical activity
Physical activity is any activity that involves moving your body. It includes everyday activities as well as organised sports and exercise.
Light physical activities don’t noticeably change your child’s breathing or heart rate. These include activities like standing, leisurely walking, leisurely wheeling a wheelchair, or moving to music.
Moderate activities make your child huff and puff a bit. These could include brisk walking, brisk wheelchair wheeling, dancing, weight training and swimming.
Vigorous activities increase your child’s heart rate and make your child huff and puff a lot. Vigorous activities can happen in games or activities like cycling (including hand cycling), soccer, wheelchair sports and some forms of dance.
Activities that strengthen muscles and bones make your child’s muscles work harder than usual and put extra force on bones. Strengthening activities include climbing, weight training and bodyweight exercises like lunges, squats, sit-to-stand exercises and seated push-ups using chair arms.
Moderate and vigorous physical activities are often also strengthening activities because they help to build muscles and bones.
It’s good to find out what types of physical activity are safe and healthy for your child. You can start by talking to your child’s paediatrician, physiotherapist or other health professional. They might also recommend certain sports or exercises to suit your child’s abilities.
How much physical activity do children with disability need?
Australian guidelines say that children of all abilities need certain amounts of physical activity depending on their age:
- At 1-3 years, children should be physically active for at least 3 hours each day. This includes energetic play.
- At 3-5 years, children should be physically active for at least 3 hours each day. This includes one hour of energetic play.
- At 5-18 years, children should do at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity plus several hours of light physical activity each day. And at least 3 days a week, this should include activities that strengthen muscles and bones.
Encouraging children with disability to be active
Enjoyment, interest and variety are key to encouraging your child with disability to be active.
Your child is more likely to feel motivated and get involved when they enjoy and are interested in what they’re doing. And if your child tries out a variety of activities, they can also discover new interests, develop more skills and get enough physical activity into their day.
Here are ideas:
- Involve your child in physical games and active play from when they’re young. For example, you might give your baby tummy time or a toy or rattle to hold.
- Ask your child whether they’ve seen any sports on TV or around the community that they’re interested in and would like to try.
- Regularly play together and take notice of which games and activities interest or excite your child. For example, if your child loves water play, they might enjoy swimming.
- Give your child a good mix of play, sports, games and activities. For example, you could try dancing together, playing with balls, racing on a chalk racetrack or mirroring movements.
- Be active yourself – your child will probably want to follow your lead.
You can work with your child’s health professionals to encourage your child to be active. These professionals might have ideas about physical activities that you hadn’t thought of, or they might be able to suggest ways to modify sports and activities for your child.
Finding or creating accessible physical activities for children with disability
Once you know about the physical activities that interest your child, you can look for ways for your child to do these activities in your community.
Sometimes schools, local sports clubs, fitness centres or community groups might already offer all abilities programs or accessible or modified options for children with disability. And sometimes you might need to work with these organisations on modifying activities to make them accessible for your child.
Your first step is to make a list of centres or services that organise physical activities that interest your child. Then you can contact and/or visit these services to talk with staff or volunteers about what’s needed for your child to participate.
Here are things to consider:
- Does the centre or service have an inclusive culture and experience working with children with disability? Are the coaches trained in inclusive practices?
- What modifications or supports are needed? For example, does your child need extra or modified equipment, one-on-one supervision or assistance, rule changes and so on?
- Can the centre or service accommodate these modifications or supports? For example, it might be quick and easy to change rules, move equipment or adapt spaces, but new equipment, structural changes or staff training might need extra funding or planning.
- Can these modifications or supports be covered under your child’s NDIS plan?
It can help to have your child’s health professional with you when visiting or talking to the centre or service. The professional can identify the modifications and supports that are needed to make the activity safe and appropriate for your child, and they can work with the centre or service on these modifications.
You might need to advocate for your child with disability to ensure they’re able to participate meaningfully at school and in the community. You can ask a family member, friend, or volunteer or professional advocate to help you advocate for your child.
Disability-specific sports and physical activities
If your child is interested in doing physical activities with other children with disability, you could look at disability-specific sports and activities.
Here are examples:
- Adaptive bike riding – this might involve arm pedal exercisers, hand bikes or bikes for frame running.
- Blind and vision impaired sports – these include AFL, archery, cricket, judo, rowing, running, soccer and more.
- Dance and gymnastics – some dance schools, gyms and leisure centres offer programs for children with disability.
- Deaf sports – these include AFL, athletics, cricket, swimming, table tennis, tenpin bowling and more.
- Horseback riding – some programs are available for children with disability as a therapy to improve balance, posture, muscle tone and coordination.
- Swimming programs or other water activities specifically for children with disability – swimming and water sports can be good for children with physical disability who need full body support or who want to work on building muscle strength in a non-weight bearing way.
- Wheelchair sports – these include AFL, basketball, hockey, lawn bowls, rugby, soccer, table tennis, tennis and more.
It’s good to have your child’s health professionals regularly assess how your child is going with their physical activity or sport. They can check whether your child is enjoying the activity, fully participating and being included. If your child needs more changes or adaptations, your professionals might be able to help you negotiate this with the service or centre.
Physical activity resources for children with disability
The following organisations and resources help people with disability to be physically active and get involved in sport.
This organisation helps families with children with disability to get their children involved in sport and dance.
Blind Sports Australia
This organisation helps people with vision impairment to participate in sports. This includes participating in community sports and in national and international competitions.
Cerebral Palsy Alliance – Sports programs
This organisation partners with community sporting bodies to help people play in local teams and competitions. It can also help people get involved in disability-specific sports.
Deaf Sports Australia
This organisation helps people who are deaf or have hearing loss to participate in inclusive sports.
Disability Sports Australia
This national body aims to help more people with disability be active. It provides funding, resources, training and accreditation to individuals and groups.
Discover Sailing – Sailability
This program provides adapted sail equipment, accessible docking options, inclusive and knowledgeable instructors, and affordable participation options.
This organisation encourages participation in sport at all levels and helps people get involved in para-sports.
This organisation runs free community events worldwide. The running events include people of all abilities. Participants can walk, jog, run, use wheelchairs, volunteer or spectate.
This organisation promotes and coordinates the disability sport of frame running in Australia.
This organisation provides sport and art programs to disadvantaged people in Australia, including children with disability.
Special Olympics Australia
This organisation runs sports training and competitions for people with intellectual disability. It also runs a program called Young Athletes for children aged 2-8 years. This program introduces basic sport skills like running, throwing and kicking.
Australian Sports Commission – Sports ability
This program provides ‘inclusive activity cards’ for many physical activities. Each card explains how to modify the activity so that children of all abilities can participate.
Looking for play and learning ideas for your child? You might like to explore our activity guides for children with disability.