ActiveWellness: Child’s Play

Ellen van Dijken, regular ActiveWellness columnist and public health physiotherapist, suggests low or no cost ways to stay fit, and feel better! 

In my previous columns we’ve looked at many activities to keep elderly people, those who have a chronic condition or disabilities, and family carers fit and healthy, but let’s not forget our young ones! Many activities can be fun for adults and children, so it is worth exploring some of these. Children are still growing and developing, which has implications for their fitness and exercise. Also, children are dependent on their caregivers to assist with exercise and fun activities.

Caring for young children is one of the most demanding jobs in the world, especially if a child has some extra needs. On top of parenting, you’ll be helping your child with activities of daily living, appointments with health professionals, medical procedures, personal cares, administering medications, and more. It can be overwhelming, exhausting and never-ending. You may also be dealing with intense feelings of stress, worry, and grief.

Choose from no cost, low cost, or higher cost activities!

Thankfully there are also many joys in caring for your disabled child(ren), and I would love to be able to help you with some ideas to keep you all healthy and active, while having fun at the same time. I have made a list of no cost, low cost, and higher cost activities.

My list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start! Get stuck into these together and see which ones you most enjoy. Be sure to make big movements that use lots of energy to help you both stay healthy and strong.

Doesn’t cost a thing!

  • Make music together Make a point of making big movements, like lifting arms up high between drum beats. Stamp your feet, clap your hands, drum on the floor. It’s such fun, success is guaranteed!
  • Dance together Put on you or your child’s favourite music and dance! Whether it be dancing with them, carrying them while you dance, or moving their limbs to the music, it is all good. Smile and interact, but that shouldn’t be too hard if it is truly your favourite music! 
  • Balloon play Balloons are the most fantastic items to play with for young and old. They invite movement and float slowly, so even the littlest ones can have a go at hitting and catching. Again, make lots of big movements and get nice and tired.
  • Swiss ball fun These massive balls invite play like balloons. Have one lying around and all your visitors will be drawn to it! You can bounce on them with your child in your arms, sit your child on it and bounce or (even more fun) lie your child on their tummy and move the ball so your child nearly rolls off. You can also roll the ball between two people, make big movements, and get your heart rates up.
  • Obstacle courses If you can handle your house being turned into a Playcentre, this is the one all children love. Depending on your child’s abilities you could include crawling through a tunnel, climbing over the couch, roly polys off a mattress, beam walking on a plank, and so on. If your child is not walking, you could still do rolling activities or other shared floor play.
  • Walking A great activity for all age groups! If you want to focus on your own fitness, take your child in a pram or wheelchair if they can’t join you.
  • Cycling There are many options to take a child with you when you go cycling. If your child is able to cycle, consider a tandem bike or even a three-wheeler.

For a few bucks

  • My personal favourite: swimming! Take your child to the pool and have fun in the water. If you go with your partner/ friend, maybe you could each take 15 minutes of time out to swim some lanes? If your child has severe disabilities, you could try floating activities with flotation devices. Bring your lunch or dinner to the pool and make it a fun family outing.
  • The zoo or a fun park You might not have thought of this for you or your child’s health, but going to the zoo and walking around for a few hours is great for your fitness. If your child isn’t up to long outings, make it a whirlwind visit. It will still be great to watch, listen to, and interact with all the animals. Keep an eye out for online or other discount vouchers.

Costs more

  • Indoor play spaces Often very busy on the weekends, these can be great during the week, when it is much quieter and the ‘clientele’ is younger. If your child is mobile there are plenty of opportunities for climbing, sliding, jumping, and so on, together with you. The ‘under fives’ play area could also be suitable for older children with developmental delays. If your child is not mobile, there are many opportunities for interactions with other children, sensory activities (touch, visual, hearing), and floor play. If you have a friend who can look after your child for five minutes, try climbing the structures yourself as fast as possible. You’ll be surprised how tired you get! You can always pretend you are looking for a child…
  • Trampolines If you already have one this is of course free, but if you don’t it is an investment. Trampolines provide oodles of opportunities for both carers and children to have a great time while working on their fitness. Even just rolling around or relaxing with your child in the sun, or gentle bouncing, will get you and your child outdoors, absorbing some Vitamin D and much needed relaxation. You can make up all sorts of fun games, depending on what your child likes to do and is able to do. PS: great for the pelvic floor, mums!

Your wellbeing

Once your child is tired from all the fun and is tucked up in bed, it’s your turn to spend some time on yourself.

If you often feel stressed, or cope with many emotions on a daily basis, you are at risk of becoming run down. You might be able to keep going for a long time, but your body and mind will be depleted, and if you let it go too far it could lead to burnout. This can take a long time to recover from, so it’s vital that you nurture your body, mind and soul as much as possible. You will then be better able to provide support.

On that note, please make your own wellbeing a priority; don’t put yourself last. This might seem impossible if there are many demands on your time and energy. Some days it might be virtually impossible to achieve some kind of balance, but work on it consciously, recommitting to nurturing yourself again the next day. And do let others know your needs. You deserve it!

It is possible to feed our body, mind and soul through working with the body. Yoga and Tai Chi are excellent examples of this. Through stretches, positions and breathing techniques, we can revitalise our overworked nervous systems.

This part of our system controls things we don’t think about like our heart rate, sweating, and breathing, and can go into overdrive when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Having fun with activity and making it a priority, working within your child’s abilities, can help you both stay well. And if you make time to consider your own wellbeing first, the rest will follow!