Being active and having fun have countless benefits for all children – from combating obesity to building confidence and making friends. One local children’s health expert discusses why play is so essential to the developing mind and body.
Now that the sun is shining and temperatures are rising, we’re all looking for ways to get outside, get moving and have fun — and for good reason!
There is a wealth of research out there to demonstrate that being active and engaging with others is good for you. Some of it is common sense: How many times have our mothers told us that sunshine and fresh air are good for us?
It just feels good to spend that first nice, warm day doing anything after being cooped up for months.
Whether it’s on the playground, in a play group or children’s gym, or as part of organized sports, every child wants to have fun, learning to run, jump, play and find their strengths. These activities present a chance to be creative, learn new skills, express ourselves, socialize, and just have a good time.
For individuals with autism and other special needs, access to these opportunities presents a number of additional benefits, as well. For one, it allows them to build confidence and practice social skills that don’t necessarily come easily. It also provides an opportunity to generalize skills and strategies they’ve learned in school and therapies into real life.
In nearly 30 years of working with individuals with autism and other special needs, I’ve seen firsthand the numerous, universally positive effects socialization and play can have for everyone:
- First and foremost, it’s good for your health. In addition to eating well, movement and exercise can help combat obesity in both children and adults.
- It builds muscle tone, helps develop body awareness, and can improve motor skills including balance and coordination.
- There are mental-health benefits, as well: Playing and making friends can help build confidence and self-worth, especially in children.
- For children with autism, research has shown that the right kind of socialization and play can help lessen negative behaviors.
There are social benefits to peer interaction and free play, as well:
- It’s a chance to meet friends and develop bonds.
- Children fine-tune social skills, and learn to read social cues, set boundaries and problem-solve. For children on the autism spectrum, it’s an opportunity to practice skills and strategies learned in therapies, and to generalize those skills in community settings.
- Time spent with peers allows children to model positive behaviors – which are reinforced by those same peers when they respond positively and play together.
In recent years, the number of recreational opportunities for children of all abilities has grown – from sensory-friendly indoor play gyms, to accessible playgrounds cropping up in several spots in South Jersey. And organized sports are an excellent outlet for children to move, play and connect – and help to provide a sense of camaraderie and pride, as well as lessons in good sportsmanship that can be hard to find in other settings.
In addition to community recreation leagues, organizations like Special Olympics provide opportunities for all children and adults to take part in sports, often side-by-side with their typically developing peers. Through the years, I’ve seen countless young men and women thrive through these experiences – gaining friendships that last a lifetime, and truly enjoying themselves.
Remember that some children may excel in group sports, while others may do better with individual sports such as bowling. Let your children try a variety of situations, so they identify what they love and have the best chance for success!
I firmly believe that a child’s job is to explore, learn and connect with other people – and there are plenty of opportunities for everyone, regardless of their unique needs, to have fun.