By Deborah Thorpe, PT, PhD
I come to the Choosy Kids blog through many years of working with children, first as an elementary school educator and presently as a pediatric physical therapist. I have been inspired by many wonderful children throughout my career and would like to share a few of these journeys with you.
Noah* is a child who marches differently to every drum. His intelligence, energy, enthusiasm and bravery are what define him, cerebral palsy (CP) is just something with which he was born. For me and all those fortunate enough to make his acquaintance, Noah has taught us humility, bravery, creativity, determination, and joy for life – just like many other children. He inspired this blog and many to come, because through him, I have learned how to help children with disabilities and their families to become more physically active and to participate in community fitness and recreational opportunities. Even if you are a parent without a child with special needs, you still may be able to relate to Noah’s stories.
I met four-year-old Noah when his mother contacted me regarding aquatic physical therapy services. We worked through several aquatic treatment sessions where I felt like I was in the pool with “JAWS” (biting)! Once we straightened that misunderstanding out, we were on our way to great things!
Water is the perfect environment to encourage movement in children who have difficulty moving on land. As infants in the womb, we were surrounded, comforted and protected by water, moving freely and effortlessly. Water has unique properties, one being buoyancy, which neutralized the effects of gravity on the body, making it much easier to move. Children who have difficulty moving on land find water a great place to try movements that are more challenging and to practice with increased success. Water play is also a highly socially- acceptable activity within communities. Most little ones have their first encounter with community swimming at YMCAs, private pools with other family members, lakes and oceans which have many people at them, and even the family bathtub (yes, we all have those embarrassing pictures of ourselves bathing with a sibling).
Stepping out into the world of “community-based” physical activities, which are dominated by typically developing children and their families, is perceived as “risky business” by children with disabilities and their families. Easing the anxiety about the perceived risk by “evening the playing field” through aquatic activities is a nice way to integrate children with disabilities into community facilities and recreational activities with their typically developing peers. In all honesty, the parents are more anxious than the child when it comes to community integration. If given the opportunity, the child will determine how he/she can participate. This can also be said for children without disabilities. No one wants their child to get hurt, but sometimes you just have to let them go and be active with others. Children can learn some important lessons about being around others, being socially active and trying new things when participating in community activities!
Providing opportunities for Noah and his family to experience interactions with other children and families in community facilities during these early aquatic therapy sessions not only eased their anxiety but also helped to educate others as to the skills Noah possessed (as opposed to his impairments). It also cultivated healthy interactions and exchanges of information related to other available community activities.
In the next blog, we will travel with Noah to “uncharted territory”…community soccer!
What community activities have you and your family experienced with your children?
*Noah is a fictional name to protect the real child.
About the Author: Deborah Thorpe, PT, PhD, has been a pediatric physical therapist, academician and researcher for 25 years. Her research focuses on fitness, physical activity, and health promotion for persons with cerebral palsy (CP) across the lifecourse.