9 Ways to Exercise Differently

By Kathy Kuhl

When your child learns differently, they may also enjoy sports and physical activity differently than their peers. Whether your child enjoy sports or hates exercise, here are some thing you can do to make exercise more fun for them:

1: Think beyond the ball!

Games that require throwing and catching may require hand-eye coordination that your child lacks. Build that hand-eye coordination first. Practice at home with Wiffle and Nerf balls (which move more slowly), or with larger balls. Oballs like these are also easier to catch and are very lightweight:


2: Less Common Sports

Instead of traditional baseball, football, and soccer, consider less common sports like badminton, indoor rock wall climbing, competitive jump rope teams, to name a few.

3: Martial Arts

Martial arts improve focus, flexibility, core strength, coordination, and proprioception—awareness of where one’s body is in space.

Martial art schools have many different philosophies. Pay attention to the worldview behind the teaching. Be aware what underlies the teaching. Is it love for power, or concern to develop character? A good martial arts instructor focuses on character. He or she teaches self-control, not violence.

I know a Christian, a fifth-degree black-belt, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. He helps his students grow up. Occasionally he reminds his students at his dojo, “No pride and ego.” Students are not there to injure people or to look good, but to work hard and to make progress, considering their age, ability, and agility. He has several students over sixty, and a few as young as five.

His wife says his favorite self-defense technique is running away. It’s not cowardice, but avoiding unnecessary fights. As the proverb says, “The strongest way to block is never to provoke a blow.”

4: Non-Team Sports

Letting down the team is discouraging. Getting chewed out by teammates is worse. I remember kickball team captains arguing over which of them would get stuck with me. No surprise I hated sports. Thank the Lord I finally found sports I enjoyed and could perform decently in!
Try activities that are not team sports. Many of the sports listed in this article avoid team situations that are potentially overwhelming or discouraging.

5: Lifetime Sports

Look for sports and activities that can be done for a lifetime, such as swimming, canoeing, walking, croquet, rollerblading, badminton, martial arts, aerobics, or weight training.

6: Combine Activities

You can combine hiking with many other fun and educational activities: nature journaling; photography; identifying flowers, insects, rocks, or animal tracks; gathering tadpoles; and other science projects. This way your child can exercise without your having to deliberately designate exercise time.

7: Use Technology

Dance, Dance, Revolution (DDR) Wii, as well as other electronic games, can encourage some kids to move. I would not recommend getting an Xbox, but if you already have one, this is one way to get a kid or teen off the sofa.

8: Slack Line

To develop core strength, try a slack line. A slack line is a wide strip of webbing, maybe fifty feet long, that you suspend a few inches off the ground. Since you are only a few inches off the ground, it’s easy to step off safely if you lose your balance. But you’ll still use your whole body keeping your balance.

Slack Line  

9: Alternatives for More Severe Needs

For kids with more severe needs, check with your local parent support groups and disability ministries to see what’s available. Challenge baseball and adaptive bowling are popular, for instance, and may be a good fit for your child.

Tips for parents

When you try a new activity

Set reasonable goals. Try a 6-8 week session of a sport and commit to stick it out—unless the teacher is cruel, classmates are humiliating, or safety concerns arise.

If a child just feels uncomfortable or awkward, encourage them to keep going and give it a good try. My son wanted to quit karate several times, but I insisted he finish the six-week session we’d paid for. Every time we got to the end of the six weeks, he wanted to sign up again—for years!

Trying again

Encourage them to try stuff they didn’t like when they were younger. Remember, people change. At age 10, my son hated going on hikes. At age 16, he was going on 50 mile backpacking and canoeing trips. We didn’t drag him on a hike every month when he was eleven, but we revisited this activity periodically. He grew to love it—after the first downpour, he was hooked.

Don’t take away the “Island of Competence”

If your child loves a sport and feels it’s what they are best at, don’t take it away as a punishment. Dr. Robert Brooks calls those areas of talent a child’s “islands of competence”—places to hang on when kids and teens feel they are failing otherwise. When our kids are struggling, we want to leave them an island to stand on. Find something else to cut when you need to discipline them.

Sports build character, improve attention, and keep our kids more fit. It can take time and struggle to find exercise our children will enjoy. Don’t give up. It’s worth it.

What sports do your kids who learn differently enjoy? Please comment below.

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  1. Kathy, Thank you for sharing your ideas about fitness for kids who learn and play differently. Your articles are always so useful to me! My son and I take martial arts classes together. He has grown in skill, confidence, and self-control. I think he has enjoyed doing this together with me. Not only is it a fun thing to do together, but he is so excited to show me what he’s accomplished and he knows that I can appreciate the effort it took for him to achieve it!

    1. Ingrid, thanks for writing. I’m happy for your son’s progress, and yours. Doing martial arts together can also be a great mental health break for homeschoolers. How? First, trying to follow an instructor’s advice on moving my body is completely different from teaching. Second, as a student, it’s my duty not to pay attention to what my son is doing, because my sensei wants my attention on his instruction and my form. I’ve seen students assigned extra push-ups for focusing on what a classmate is doing. I don’t want extra push-ups! Those brief class hours off duty were very refreshing.