Getting active

9 mins read

I took part in athletics and still hold the national record in long jump. I also did judo, which helped with my disability by learning about balance and how to fall. I focused on swimming as it got too much to do all sports, and I had more of a talent in swimming.” Sascha Kindred, Paralympic multiple gold medalist

Sport is fun, stimulating and a great way to stay fit. Not only are there health benefits to participating in a sport, but the friendship opportunities are also invaluable. The aim of this page is to tell you more about these benefits so that you choose what is the best way for your child to get active.

In this article

Early years

At this age your child may be getting lots of physiotherapy, both with a therapist and at home, but their physical and social development can benefit from active play in groups such as Tumble Tots.

Parents are sometimes inclined to be overprotective, but as long as the activity is well supervised and the play workers know about your child’s hemiplegia, there should not be a problem joining in.

You will probably find early years activities at your local park, leisure centre or school, and your local authority may have a scheme allowing children with a disability free or cheaper entry.

H (aged 3) enjoys swimming and I’ve found that this loosens her up really well, she has made us so proud passing Duckling 1 and 2 awards.”

Four-11 years old

Once they are at school children often get less physio and occupational therapy (OT). At this age it falls more to family to keep them exercising – or perhaps active might be a better word here, because they will be more and more unwilling to do anything that smacks of therapy. Fortunately, during the primary school years children with hemiplegia can keep up with their classmates in many activities.

Most children with hemiplegia can take part in a multitude of sports. Swimming and cycling in particular are two skills that will not only help keep them fit and strengthen their muscles, but will make it easier for them to mix with others of their age. Some children continue to need stabilisers or prefer a three-wheeler (it may be possible to get a specialised bike through an OT or a charity – see our cycling page).

“He rides a bicycle with ordinary stabilisers, goes to gymnastics, is having private swimming lessons, and we encourage walking everywhere.”

“My daughter can’t ride a bike, so we bought her a go-cart which she uses to exercise her legs.”

B likes us going out as a family on our bikes. As she is unable to ride a bike on her own we have a tandem.”

Other activites that children with hemiplegia commonly take part in range from tennis, sailing and horse riding to gymnastics and trampolining. Some sporting activities, notably riding, might be more appropriate in a disabled setting, but otherwise there’s no reason why your child can’t take part in mainstream sport. Many children of this age are also active in youth organisations such as Cubs, Brownies and Woodcraft Folk.

“Give them opportunities to do things even if you know that they will only achieve a little. We took S to a climbing wall when he was about six because he desperately wanted to have a go. The instructor was great. He got about three feet off the ground but thought it was marvellous and still talks about the experience.”

Of course success in all these activities depends on finding the right place to do it, and unfortunately not all teachers and instructors are sensitive enough to provide a positive experience. You may need to shop around to find the right setting for your child. Some dance schools, for example, will accommodate children with disabilities, and some exam boards (e.g. IDTA) make allowances for them.

“She goes to Gym club, ballet, dance class, swimming lessons. All in mainstream settings but I have told teachers about her hemiplegia and they do modify what they ask her to do.”

11-16 years old

This is a time of great changes – primary to secondary school, childhood to puberty to young adulthood. It is a time when appearances become more important and differences more noticeable, and when your child is likely to become more self-conscious about his or her hemiplegia.

Nevertheless it is clear that many young people continue to take part in the sports and activities they began in childhood. In fact, many widen their range to include new interests such as snooker, tenpin bowling, badminton, squash and golf.

“He plays football at Gloucestershire FA Disability Centre of Excellence.”

“My daughter was six weeks old when I was told she would not walk or talk. Last year she was a national swimming champion with three medals.”

“Riding – this is her passion. She goes every week and is a stable hand in the holidays (paid work). This is where she has made friends, and it has been wonderful for her balance and mobility.”

It should be noted that sport at this age tends to become more competitive, and it can become more difficult for disabled children to keep up with their non-disabled peers. If your child is more competitively-minded, there are more and more opportunities to continue to develop and compete in a disabled setting. All sporting National Governing Bodies (NGB) have a detailed pathway for the disabled athlete wishing to go further in their sporting career.

Of course only a few will reach, or want to reach, the Olympic heights. But in general opportunities are growing to continue sport locally, possibly moving from a mainstream to a disability setting. Some young people with hemiplegia have managed so far in mainstream and don’t see themselves as disabled so are unwilling to go down this road.

If your child is less interested in competition, some areas have integrated sports facilities where everyone can take part to their own ability. Otherwise, you can help them find another activity that is less physically challenging and competitive but that will still help keep them fit. Some young people have found that youth organisations and award schemes combine interesting activity with good disability awareness and an inclusive approach.

Scouts has been fantastic – disability no problem, safe/structured environment. He has just been to Germany for six nights and is going on a five night watersports course in May half term – they have adapted boats if needed. Scouts has helped in so many ways – especially self confidence.”

“The thing I am proudest of is my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s award. This award is designed so anyone can take part, so for example I went on an expedition with other people with Special Needs because with my hemiplegia and also hip problems I can’t walk long distances.”

Into adulthood

When your child reaches adulthood they will probably have much less contact with doctors, therapists and so on, so they are going to be more responsible for their own health and fitness.

This is not to say that they should ignore their aches and pains. If your child has any concerns they should see their GP for a referral to a specialist. A few sessions with a physiotherapist may help get them standing and moving better. Some young adults, having rejected all orthoses in their teens, have realised an orthotic insole improves their walking pattern and posture. But any medical intervention will be more effective if combined with regular exercise.

Again, young adults at this age are involved in all sorts of active pursuits, and mostly in mainstream settings, though of course it makes sense for your child to have an assessment to check that any new activity is going to be suitable.

“D (aged 17) goes to a local gym where he exercises and uses the pool and steam room. The physiotherapist visited the gym with us at first and helped advise what D should and shouldn’t do. This was a great help as I and the gym instructors had him on things like the cross trainer to try to get both sides working but the physio said never to use this for D and to use machines that strengthen his centre rather than try for co-ordination.”

“I can swim and enjoy it. I am a very slow swimmer and can only really do backstrokes (a bit dangerous in a crowded pool!) or doggy paddle (not the most elegant or rapid of strokes!) but I don’t care really, it’s all a bit of fun!”

Popular activities include yoga and Pilates, which develop flexibility and strengthen core muscles in the body, ballet as a way of to developing balance and coordination. Keeping fit doesn’t have to mean going to a gym or a sports pitch. Some people find everyday activity will do just as well, whether walking to the next bus stop or clubbing the night away.

In this era of hi-tech, some people also keep fit in front of the computer.

“I have a Wii Fit. It’s great. I had difficulty with the yoga (like standing on my right foot and bending my left leg back) so had to hold onto a bookcase or something steady. I was cr*p at the skiing and hula hooping but still really enjoyed it and I also enjoyed the jogging. Even though I don’t feel the balance game has improved my balance I still really enjoy it. If you want to try something to improve your arm strength, play boxing on the Nintendo Wii with the wrist/ankle weights on. You will break a HUGE sweat doing it, and as with most games on the Wii it’s absolutely HILARIOUS.”