How to mix pool playtime with therapy

On a hot summer day, there is no place kids would rather be than at their local pool. Sun and fun go hand-in-hand, but the pool is also an ideal place to incorporate therapy for children with special needs.

“One of the reasons aquatic therapy is effective is because it allows special needs children to experience things they wouldn’t experience on land, and they are able to do things they can’t often do in their daily lives,” says Kirsten Conner, aquatics director at JCC Chicago’s All-In Swim program.

“The pool puts everyone on an even playing field, and kids with special needs can be more successful in water while also building their confidence and strength,” Conner says.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists strongly encourage aquatic therapy for kids with a wide variety of special needs.

“Swimming is one of my favorite activities to recommend to parents,” says Leida Lewis, physical therapist at Evanston’s North Shore Pediatric Therapy. “Swimming is an exercise that strengthens the entire body—core, arms and legs. It is also great for improving cardiovascular endurance.”

While kids are having fun in the pool, parents can feel good at the same time about all the therapeutic benefits.

“Therapy in the pool provides kids the opportunity to practice movements with zero gravity and can help to promote improved vestibular processing while the child is moving in various planes,” says Lindsay Moyer, occupational therapist at Lincolnwood’s North Shore Pediatric Therapy.

“The water also provides constant resistance to the muscles which can promote improved strength and endurance. Swimming against the strength of the water also provides our kids with regulating proprioceptive input,” Moyer says.

Often, Moyer says, kids are willing to push themselves further in their aquatic therapy as opposed to a typical therapy appointment.

The best part is that therapy in the water is actually tied to fun and games.

Lewis recommends exercises such as having kids dive for objects to increase cardiovascular endurance and strength, floating on their backs to practice keeping their bodies calm and regulate their breathing, or treading water while passing a beach ball back and forth.

“Make it fun! Kids should always be excited to be in the pool,” Moyer says. “Try having your child pick up rings from the bottom of the pool, march around, blow bubbles, do jumping jacks or even jump in off the side.”

Therapists who do aquatic therapy often use equipment like pool noodles, kick boards and hand paddles to position and facilitate exercises with the child.

“Therapy in the pool can also provide an opportunity to work on social skills as the pool is a natural environment for peer engagement,” Moyer says.

Despite the fun that comes with pools, it’s up to adults to create a safe environment at the pool and to teach water safety, especially to children with special needs.

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