Encouraging exercise in children with special needs

yoga-downs-syndrome-special-needs-exerciseThree years ago, Emily Jean Davidson, MD, MPH, decided to become a yoga instructor. Her niche was unorthodox: she wanted to teach inclusive yoga for children with Down syndrome and other medical and developmental issues.

Davidson, a pediatrician specializing in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities in the Down Syndrome Program and the Complex Care Services at Boston Children’s Hospital, is passionate about promoting exercise in children of all abilities.

“A lot of parents of children with developmental disabilities struggle to find time and/or opportunities to engage their children in healthy physical activity,” says Davidson. “If you’re taking your kid to lots of appointments with specialists, sports and active play can fall by the wayside.”

Often, she adds, programs are designed exclusively for children with one particular condition, such as a ballet class for children with Down syndrome or a swimming program for kids with asthma, and that means others are excluded.

“The good news is there are lots of recreational programs out there,” says Davidson. “You just have to look into your local community’s offerings.”

Some of Davidson’s suggestions are:

  • Check in with your local parks and recreation department
    • Many cities and towns have recreational sports leagues for children with physical and/or developmental disabilities.
  • Call or visit your local chapter of The Arc, a national organization that advocates for and supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Join Paraolympics or Special Olympics
  • See if your city or town has a Challenger Division, a baseball program run by Little League Baseball
  • Take an inclusive yoga class or buy yoga DVDs to use at home.
  • The Adventure Challenge website has printable cards with yoga poses you can color in.

    Watch Matthew Sanford’s chair yoga practice videos for all ability levels

  • Look into adaptive bicycles or special bike attachments (such as a trike ride-along)
  • Talk to the administrators at your child’s school; some schools allow kids who aren’t athletically competitive to still be a part of a sports team with a different role, such as “assistant manager”
    • Learn about opportunities through You’re with us, an organization that creates inclusion experiences for young adults with disabilities.
  • “Dance parties are always a good idea and don’t require any special equipment,” says Davidson. “It’s just about getting kids moving, getting their heart rate up and turning their cheeks pink!

“Research has shown that modeling is very important,” adds Davidson. “Kids will want to do what they see their parents doing. Make exercise part of a family routine; for example, start a tradition of going for an afternoon walk together every Saturday.”

yoga-downs-syndrome-martha-eliotGet out and play!

About six years ago, she founded Fun Inclusive Training at Boston Children’s Hospital (FIT@Children’s ) (formerly known as Adventure Challenge), an exercise program that pairs youth volunteers with Boston Children’s patients who have physical or developmental disabilities. The volunteers, or “coaches,” meet up with their patient partners to work out at a local YMCA, shoot hoops in a neighborhood court or play in a playground.

“A real benefit to this model is that the kids are going out into the community, where they can make connections with others, too,” says Davidson.

Davidson’s yoga class, which is held at the Martha Eliot Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain, MA, attracts children ages 6 -17. “It’s very playful,” she says. “We use visual modeling and play games such as ‘freeze dance yoga,’ where you have to strike a yoga pose when the music stops.

Yoga is like food. Everyone can find a kind they like!”

And at the end of the day, in Davidson’s own words, it comes down to this: “Find playful ways to move, and make it fun!”

For more information on FIT@Children’s, email Adventure.Challenge@childrens.harvard.edu.

davidson_emily2Emily Davidson, MD, MPH, is an assistant in Medicine in Complex Care Services at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.




Learn more about Complex Care Services at Boston Children’s Hospital.