Sunday, May 29, 2011

Improve Fitness and Self-Esteem By Incorporating “Family Playtime”

By Marc Sickel, Founder of Fitness for Health

Does this sound familiar?

“I’m not going to play outside and you can’t make me!” yelled Sam* to his mom.

“Honey, you’ve spent all morning inside the house and it’s a beautiful day. Don’t you want to shoot hoops with your friends?” replied Sam’s mother.

The importance of improving fitness skills cannot be underestimated. Many special needs children with low levels of interest in physical activity are often found to have decreased self-confidence. The American Heart Association has shown that physically active children show improvements in a wide variety of measures of psychological well-being—including self-esteem.

A vicious cycle can easily be established as both physical activity and self-confidence decline. A special needs child may feel inadequate when he thinks that he is unable to keep up with his peers and may avoid “play” situations. The child may find ways to compensate for lower skill level by staying indoors when possible, creating fictitious injuries, offering to be the game’s referee, or walking around the perimeter of the activity.

How can parents encourage their children to be physically fit? Make physical activities and games FUN! The key to successful participation is creativity and positive reinforcement as well as scheduling a regular time during the week as “family playtime.”

Need a few ideas for family games? Fitness for Health, a premiere therapeutic, fitness facility for children in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, recommends the following fun activities:

• Celebrate the nice weather and play balloon toss. Balloons can be filled with air or water, or toss different sized or textured balls or other soft objects. If you are playing outside, try using a wet sponge.

• Design your own obstacle course using household items such as sheets, empty boxes, chairs and sticks that can create tunnels, hurdles and mazes. Create teams—parents versus kids or sibling versus sibling.

• Have a dance contest. Ask each family member to “invent” a dance move and give it a funny name. Ask family member to teach his/her dance to the rest of the family.

• Create your own music videos. Ask family members to raid their closets and create costumes. Next, blare (or sing) your favorite songs and use a video camera to film your adaptations. Plan a family movie night to watch your music video debuts or upload your videos to You Tube.

• Create hours of fun by making your own Twister-style game. Using duct tape or colored chalk, make outlines of shapes on your floor or patio. Ask a family member to call out commands such as, “Place your right foot in the square. Place your left knee in the circle.”

• Play water tag (similar to laser tag, but using squirt guns).

• Set up a treasure hunt. Time the event to encourage participants to walk briskly or jog to find the objects. The person who finds the most items in the least amount of time is the winner.

• Re-enact Wimbledon using homemade racquets. Bend a wire hanger into an oval, cover the oval using old pantyhose, and then duct tape a wooden paint stirrer to create a handle. Crumple a used piece of paper to create the “ball” or “birdie” and play tennis in your own yard.

• Go bowling in your yard or hallway. Before you recycle, gather empty water or juice bottles to use as pins. Add a ball and you’ve created a personal bowling alley!

• Play baseball using a homemade bat. Wash and dry an empty 2-liter bottle. To make the bat more durable, use an 18-inch wooden rod or a stick. Place the rod in bottle and duct tape the remaining portion of the rod to the bottle opening. Use with Wiffle balls, wadded socks, crumpled paper—anything you can imagine!

Families need to work—and play—together to enhance physical fitness while building stronger relationships. With an integrated, team-building approach, parents, grandparents and children can create fun, recreational games that also increase self-esteem.

As a solid base of skills is built, the special needs child who once avoided risk now has the comfort level and confidence to try new activities—and take on new challenges. With this paradigm shift, the child can enjoy the physical exertion and camaraderie of team play and continue to progress physically, psychologically and socially.

* The child’s name has been changed in order to protect his privacy.

Marc Sickel, a certified athletic trainer and founder of Fitness for Health located in Rockville, MD, specializes in creating fun, individualized fitness programs for children and adults with varying needs and skill levels. To learn more about Fitness for Health, visit