Is swimming good exercise for children with special needs?

As a neuromovement specialist I know that the first thing we encounter at birth is gravity. We, as humans, then go through a long apprenticeship learning to manage gravity. Most people keep improving their skills up to about 5 years old. Sadly, many stop there. Enrolling in sports is one way to continue that process. One of the things people gain when they work with me is an improved sense of how to use gravity. Some people are more challenged with this than others. Adults with stroke, back injuries, etc. may have to “relearn” what they discovered as children.  With children with special needs it is one of the primary things they learn that will really change their lives.  I encourage my clients to create a rich environment to continue learning outside of lessons with me with a focus on managing gravity. There’s lots of things you can do that enhance the apprenticeship in gravity for small babies, toddlers, children, athletes, those with injuries, and seniors.

People ask me is “Is swimming a good activity to support the learning?” My response: It can contribute to improved head control, it gives a person freedom to move, (and moving is just plain good for you), but the feeling of weight is altered and there is no feedback about movement in gravity in the water.  Think of how it feels when you step off a trampoline.  Your sense of gravity is distorted.  Or when you try to maneuver on an air bed or water bed.  That difficulty you feel is because you are used to using gravity against a firm surface.  It gives you information about how to lean and push to stay upright.  That feeling of being grounded and having something to push against is what we are trying to build in neuromovement lessons.  So if it is important for you or your child to gain more skill with managing gravity they should be spending most of their time getting experience IN gravity.

I still say – GO SWIM! – just know it is for fun NOT to learn to move in space. The biggest gain I think, is that everyone can do it. The whole family can swim together with the right devices to help the person with special needs.

My son loved the water from an early age. I think it was that weightless feeling and the freedom to move. He also loved the chaos and crowd feeling being in the middle of all the splashing, yelling, and jumping. Water is kind of an equalizer. With just a little help to make sure he stayed afloat he could join in the fun. We started with a typical baby float with the ring and sling seat. I used inflated water wings tucked around him to make sure he wouldn’t tilt out of position. We had a brief period using an adapted head float. That was great for giving him full body freedom to move. Once the baby seat and head float became to small we went to a child’s inflatable ring around his chest. It seemed a little unstable so we added the inflatable water wings on his arms to give him ballast to the sides. I was starting to stress about finding a ring in the next size when Don’s dad suggested he just try the water wings alone. Don would need to manage how low he was in the water by the height he held his arms with the wings. That was a big chunk of learning for him.   I didn’t think it was going to work, but they both proved me wrong.

Don learned to keep his arms down and was good at managing the splashing against his face. One of the things I have learned is that when Don really wants to do something he makes it happen. As an adult he loves to swim. Getting in the pool is easy – he just jumps from a seated position on the side and his water wings (adult size now) pop him right back up to the surface.  Getting out of the pool is a bigger challenge these days. He’s taller than me! I’ll write more about what we’ve tried to solve the exit problem in
another article. It’s an ongoing challenge.

You can find water wings, infant seats and swim rings at most grocery stores, drugs stores or places like Target.  For adapted swim equipment try:



 I recently ran across this article about swim equipment.  I hadn’t realized that public pools might not allow basic water wings.  It’s something to think about if you plan to use public pools.  Flotation equipment specifically for special needs might get you past that hurdle.  I would call ahead to the public pool to get authorized by an administrator rather than depending on the highschool life guard to break rules they have been given.  Note the link embedded there about a child asked to not use water wings in a public pool: