Active Entertainment Ideas for Kids on the Spectrum
Summertime is the perfect time to get moving! Physical activity can have a profound effect on an individual’s health – mentally, emotionally and physically – especially for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental delays. From serving as a calming strategy and aiding in the reduction of maladaptive behaviors, to building social skills and strengthening motor coordination, flexibility and balance, getting the body in motion has a number of invaluable benefits.
Sunshine is a great motivator, but remaining physically active while home for the summer can sometime be challenging. Whether June Gloom and thunderstorms just won’t go away, you’re living in an area that is too hot to hang outside for more than a few minutes, or you’re simply running out of ideas, finding a way to get the kids up-and-at-’em is not always easy. From Peloton classes to YouTube demos, at-home fitness subscriptions are awesome for adults trying to keep moving … but what about autism-friendly, active options for kids?
The Hopebridge team of board certified behavior analysts (BCBA) and occupational therapists developed a list of ideas to keep kids moving, plus a few tips and tricks on how to make them work for your family.
Determining which activities are most appropriate for each child depends on their age, health status and mental and physical development. Interests are important, too, so think about their preferred reinforcers and what kinds of activities they love, then build upon them. Your child’s clinicians can weigh in on strategies and interests from the center, so use them as a resource when making plans at home.
Before getting started, prepare the room or outdoor area. Make sure you have adequate space to move around and have water on hand to hydrate. Use social stories, visual schedules, visual timers and any other tools that may help things run smoothly.
The most important tip for coping with inactivity and getting your kiddos’ wiggles out is to get involved! Participating alongside them will help you better connect with your child, keep them engaged and increase the overall effectiveness of the activity … plus, you will be able to check off your own fitness for the day.
15 Ideas to Keep Your Kiddo Occupied and Active
- Toss a ball around.
It seems so simple, but adding a ball into your child’s “exercise” routine can make all the difference. Whether playing a game of catch outside to practice a new skill, or incorporating other types of learning into your sports, the options are endless. Play a game of “alphabet ball” or count numbers out loud each time you toss it back and forth. For indoor fun without the risk of breaking everything in sight, the Ollyball is an awesome active tool. It acts more like a balloon than a ball, as it lightly floats around when it’s hit and does not hurt if someone gets bopped in the head. Bonus: the Ollyball comes with a black-and-white canvas ready to be customized with your kiddos’ colorful designs.
- Create an indoor obstacle course.
This one takes a little preparation, but an indoor obstacle course is a blast for the entire family and can last for days. To set it up, use colorful masking tape on the floor and printed picture icons next to each “station.” Incorporate motions like walking backwards, running, jumping, skipping, hopping on one foot, zig-zagging, crawling, twirling and any other movement your child will enjoy. Even if they haven’t yet mastered a certain action, it’s a good opportunity to work on gross motor skills and get the sillies out at the same time. The blog and Instagram account, @mothercould, has some great examples, but be sure to adapt them to your child’s age and skill level. Parents’ verbal cues are a nice addition for children who may have difficulty following the visual directions, plus can help build communion skills. Once ready, put on a playlist filled with upbeat music and put it to work … and don’t forget to join in!
- Play active board games.
If your child enjoys board games or card games, there are some entertaining options out there that will get them moving and keep them engaged. There are classics like Twister and Charades for Kids, but parents should also check out the newer “I Can Do That!” games with Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat and Marvel themes. For other games featuring characters with familiarity, the Disney Junior Super Stretchy Game is meant for littles age 3 and older.
- Use apps to your advantage.
Screen time can be your friend in this case. Cosmic Kids Yoga is a fan favorite of kids and parents alike, as the app and free YouTube videos feature yoga flows in themes like Frozen, Trolls and other original animated stories, plus games and guided meditation scripts. For more straight-forward fitness, the Exercise Buddy app is an autism-friendly visual exercise system that was created with our community in mind.
- Visit the playground without leaving your house.
Create your own Montessori-style playset at home. Some of our favorite home gym pieces for children include the Pikler triangle, climbing arch, rock wall-style board (which usually doubles as a slide on the other side!) and rope ladder for the more advanced climbers. They are available in a range of sizes and with a ton of accessories, so search for options best for your family and home. The Nugget play couch is another option that fits right in with most decor. Most of this equipment is not cheap, but if you have it in the budget, it can provide hours – and days – of motion. Here’s the best part: most of these items are meant for indoor usage, so rain and snow days won’t keep the play away.
- Go on an outdoor scavenger hunt.
An easy-going walk is a nice way to stay active, but parents can keep their children even more engaged by embarking on a scavenger hunt at the same time. Print out a page with picture icons or read the list aloud as your child searches for plants and wildlife. Incorporate colors and numbers into the adventure or encourage them to practice repeating certain words for extra learning opportunities.
- Catch bubbles.
Depending on a parent’s own lung capacity – or the battery strength of a bubble machine – a game of “catch the bubble” could practically last forever. Grab a bottle of the sudsy substance and get to work! If your kids get tired, take a break and use the opportunity to have them try blowing bubbles on their own.
- Jump it out on a trampoline.
A trampoline is another tool that can provide endless fun. For younger children and smaller spaces, mini rebounders like the Little Tikes version are good, safe options to burn off energy. Have them free jump or pull it out during TV time for kids who could use a break from sitting. If you have a larger trampoline in your yard, try it out with sidewalk chalk! Allow the kids to design their new “blackboard” in between jumps or follow a pattern you create. While adult supervision is key for all of these activities, it is especially important on and around the trampoline.
- Climb stairs.
Have a staircase in your home or apartment building? How about bleachers or stone steps at a nearby park? Use them to your advantage (safely, of course)! With younger children or those continuing to build upon their physical skills, have them practice simply walking up and down the steps or climbing with their hands and feet. Children who are comfortable and sturdy on the steps can alternate running up the stairs, practicing a side-step, or jumping up and down from the first step. It will get their heart rate moving and mix up the day. If you have a giant cardboard box lying around, take the excitement up a notch by creating a staircase slide.
- Play movement games with verbal cues.
There are a number of active games parents and kids can play without involving other toys or equipment. Follow the Leader and Simon Says are games parents will remember from their own childhoods that are still just as relevant today. As the “leader,” model various movements like waving, clapping, marching, jumping jacks and crab walks for your child to replicate. Not only will these games get the kids moving, but they offer an opportunity to practice following directions.
- Do the “monster stomp.”
This activity combines art, sensory play and movement. To start, roll out some butcher paper on the floor. Next, wrap your child’s feet in some leftover bubble wrap. Pour a little paint in a tray or on paper plates, then let them step in it and stomp all over the paper. They will create their own designs and get a sensory experience all at once.
- Make chores fun.
Here’s a “game” parents and kids will probably both enjoy. Give them household tasks to take on and try to make a game out of it. For example, how fast can your kiddos put their socks in the hamper? Play “freeze dance” but swap out dancing for sweeping the floor. Have them pick up small toys with their toes. Ask them to feed the plants some water. This game lasts longer than the summer, too–during the fall season, have them rake leaves … and then jump in the pile for good measure. We love these cleaning activities because they teach foundational skills and set kids on a path for good habits.
- Play “Red Light, Green Light” on wheels.
“Red Light, Green Light” is a typical schoolyard game that can be adapted to almost any ability through verbal or visual cues. Give the game a twist by playing it on wheels with your child on a scooter or balance bike. If your child is not yet ready for the big wheels, consider asking them to push a toy shopping cart or stroller. The equipment adds a new element to this game-on-the-go.
- Simply swing.
If you have been to a Hopebridge center, you have probably witnessed the popularity of our swings. Swinging is not just fun for kids, it can provide a calming activity, strengthen sensory experiences and assist in postural control. Use it as a soothing tool during tougher moments or to get ready before bedtime. Or, to make it more active, have children practice pumping their legs to gain more height or take a turn pushing a parent or sibling on the swing.
- Host a dance party.
If all else fails – and even if it hasn’t! – get down with a dance party. Freestyle it with your child’s favorite songs or give it more purpose with paired songs-and-dances like the “Chicken Dance,” “Baby Shark” and the “Hokey Pokey.” For extra fun, set up a camera on the timelapse mode and capture all the action to watch together later.
At Hopebridge, our center-based therapy incorporates active play with learning. To explore the options available to your family in one of our autism therapy centers across the nation, contact us to set up a call or tour.