Engaging Special Needs Children with Fitness

Engaging Special Needs Children with Fitness

“Fitness” and “exercise” have basically become synonymous with “not fun.” Even the term “workout” reminds people in its name that it’s hard work. It’s hard enough to get kids to sit and pay attention to singing puppets teaching them the letters of the alphabet. How are you supposed to keep children with special needs entertained enough to improve their physical and mental health? Here are some tips for engaging special needs children with fitness:

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Note: The tips below are designed for trainers who are interested in working with children with special needs, so you’ll see us use the term “client” a lot. However, these are all great tips for parents of children with special needs, special education teachers, and behavioral therapists too!

Treat Each Child Like an Individual, Not a Diagnosis

Every child you work with is going to be different. They’ll have different interests, different triggers, and different experiences. They’ll also have different needs when it comes to their specific disability. You could have a client who is paraplegic or you could have one who has autism. In each case, you’ll have to do things very different to keep each client engaged with fitness.

Even two different children with autism are going to need different types of attention and engagement. Get to know your clients as individuals before making assumptions based on their diagnoses.

If your client is too young to effectively communicate what they need, or if they’re non-verbal, it’s best to consult with their caregiver about what usually works best when they’re at home.

Avoid Distractions, as Much as Possible

This point seems obvious, right? Why would we even include this?

Well, after you have gotten to know your client as an individual, you’ll find out what external stimuli distract them most often. Once you’ve figured this out, you can learn to avoid the specific triggers for misbehavior and distraction, rather than trying to avoid the things you think might distract them.

For example: You may think that a group of people hanging out near your workout area might distract your young client. And, of course, that’s possible. That could serve as a distraction for most people. But if your client has autism, they might be too concerned with the tag of their shirt scratching at the nape of their neck to notice those people or hear you as you’re giving directions.

Appeal to Each Child’s Interests

It’s important to determine what each child’s interests are and implement them as often as possible in the exercise. Back to treating each child like an individual: Not every child will be appeased by the same activity as another. When getting to know your client, you may have learned that they like to do. Children with autism, in particular, are usually vocal about their interests and latest obsessions. Try your best to incorporate them into the workout.

Let’s use Sam from Atypical as an example. (If you haven’t seen this amazing Netflix-original series yet, wow, run home and watch it. There are three seasons now available!)

Sam loves studying the entire continent of Antarctica, but he especially loves penguins. You might appeal to a client like Sam by making the exercise movements as penguin-like as possible (if he enjoys acting like a penguin). If he finds it silly to make penguin-like movements (remember, it’s important to adjust to each client’s unique needs!), then you might just compare each workout to a penguin’s movements. You could learn about the subject by asking Sam about them (during your non-workout time; you don’t want the session to go by without getting any exercise in!), or you could even show special interest in the subject by doing research in your off time.

Make Fitness Fun

The best way to engage a special needs child in fitness — or to engage anyone in fitness for that matter — is to make fitness fun. Of course, you can do this by appealing to their interests, but you can also do this will simple games that are secrets cardio or core exercises.

In our sister company Strong Education’s article, Making Fitness Fun for Kids With Special Needs, the writer suggests these fun exercises (and expands on each one):

  • Swinging
  • Playing Tag
  • Jumping Rope
  • Seeing Jumps Highest
  • Playing Catch
  • Counting Exercises
  • Playing Twister
  • Swimming
  • Deep Stretching

Types of Fitness Activities for Children with Special Needs

Making fitness activities accessible to children with special needs is vital for their complete development. These activities aren’t just about physical health; they also facilitate the development of motor skills, foster social interaction, and boost self-esteem.

1. Adaptive Sports

Adaptive sports such as wheelchair basketball, adaptive swimming, or seated volleyball, are designed explicitly for those with varying abilities. These sports provide an excellent opportunity for children with special needs to participate in physical activities while experiencing the camaraderie and thrill associated with team-based sports. Besides, these games can also help improve gross motor skills.

2. Sensory-Friendly Workouts

For children with special needs, sensory-friendly workouts can provide a much-needed avenue for physical exercise. These activities, like yoga and mindfulness exercises, focus on controlled breathing and gentle movements. This helps reduce stress, manage sensory sensitivities, and promote an overall sense of well-being.

3. Dance and Movement

Inclusive dance classes or rhythmic movement sessions offer a fun and engaging way to get children with special needs moving. These activities encourage children to express themselves creatively and enable them to improve coordination and balance in an enjoyable atmosphere.

4. Play-based Exercise

Interactive, play-based exercises such as obstacle courses, scavenger hunts or interactive playground games can be tailored to align with developmental goals. These games combine physical activity with elements of fun and engagement, making exercises an enjoyable experience rather than a chore.

5. Water-Based Activities

Aquatic therapy or adapted swimming programs provide a buoyant, supportive environment for physical activity, making it an excellent choice for children with special needs. Water-based activities are low-impact yet highly effective, offering resistance for muscle toning while lessening the risk of injury due to falls.

6. Martial Arts

Martial arts programs adapted for children with special needs focus on discipline, coordination, and motor skills. These programs modify traditional martial arts movements to suit the abilities of the children, attending to their diverse challenges in an encouraging and supportive manner. Martial arts programs can foster not only physical skill development but also self-confidence and perseverance.

Ensuring accessibility and adaptability in fitness activities not only supports the physical health of children with special needs but also fosters a sense of inclusion and accomplishment. Tailoring these activities to individual preferences and abilities ensures a positive and enriching fitness experience for every child.

Parents: Sign Your Child Up for Private Training or Bootcamp!

Sometimes all your kid needs to feel engaged in fitness is inspiration and a new personal training buddy. You can sign your child up for private training sessions, to work on your child’s unique needs, or one of our bootcamps, to engage with other kids their age.

Special Strong provides nutrition and adapted fitness for special needs children, adolescents, and adults with autism, Down Syndrome, and other disabilities. Through our online training platform, we also provide special needs certification courses for educators, professionals, and parents who want to learn how to adapt fitness to serve the special needs population.

Trainers, Therapists, SPED Teachers

Interested in Getting Certified in Special Needs Fitness?

Engaging special needs children with fitness is easy if you’re Special Strong Certified. Our sister company, Strong Education, offers inexpensive, online training courses that you can take at your own pace.



Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.