Indiana weather is always changing, but all parents can predict at least part of the cold weather forecast – cooped up kids with a chance of meltdowns.
Burning off enough energy in the winter months can be a challenge for all kids, and maybe even more so for those on the autism spectrum. “Everyone has a need for activity because lying around isn’t what we’re meant to do,” says Vince LaMarca, Clinical Director at Little Star Center, an applied behavior analysis, or ABA, center serving children with autism. “They are going to get that sensory activity out somehow. If it doesn’t happen through appropriate means, you’ll be looking at less-appropriate kinds of behaviors, such as crying, whining and outbursts.”
But before you set up weeks full of visits to indoor playgrounds, inclusive gyms and adaptive classes, it’s best to start slowly, experts say. Examine your own personality type – how much planning and structure you crave – and then take small steps to help increase your child’s activity level. For example, instead of starting with an hour-long activity, set a goal of getting your child to be more active for just five or ten minutes a day, and then work up from there, LaMarca says. “Try to keep in mind that less is more, and that it’s all about what’s in it for the kid. In fact, a 2015 study of exercise interventions found that just 15 minutes of vigorous, fun activities for children ages 5 to 11 reduced stereotypic behavior for an average of two hours afterwards.” he says. “If you have too much lined up, or if you kid doesn’t like the activity, or if it’s too long a time, it may be counterproductive.”
Try something new
Exposing kids to new indoor activities during the winter months can help keep their interest longer. For example, some families maintain the novelty of karate lessons, bounce house visits or gymnastics classes by scheduling them only during cold weather.
Keep in mind that exploring the changing seasons outside, and the traditions that surround them, can also be a good motivator for kids to get active. “My boys’ favorite part of playing outside in the winter is the hot cocoa I make when they come back in,” says Cathy Willman, a Brownsburg mom of three, including a son with autism. “It’s a half an hour of suiting up for five minutes of play, and then we drink, but it works.”
Think outside the court/field/pool
It’s also important to remember that moving around doesn’t necessarily have to involve structured sports or lessons.
“This could be the time of year you teach your kids to do more chores around the house. Even if it’s just for five minutes – putting away a few pieces of clothing or picking up a room – it gets them up and moving,” LaMarca says.
Other non-sport suggestions include video games that require movement, following along with yoga or dance videos on YouTube or setting up a simple indoor treasure hunt by hiding pictures of your child’s favorite characters around a room. Investing in equipment that encourages physical activity can also help. “We’re able to stay home some days and still be active with our mini trampoline and indoor spin disk, and we’re thinking of adding a Gorilla Gym Kids adapter to a door frame for a swing,” says Jenny Holcomb, a Zionsville mom of two, including a son with autism.
Of course, there’s one sure-fire way to get a child interested in doing something – make it messy. If you can stand it, consider covering the living room floor and playing with a box of beans, or make your shower or tub into a playful exploration zone once a week.
“Parents know that a child’s enjoyment of an activity is directly proportional to the amount of mess it will make, so ask yourself, ‘Where in my house can I allow things to get absolutely crazy?’” LaMarca suggests. “Sure, it will get everywhere, but it’s a great way to get kids active.”
Start slowly, try something new and get creative in your efforts to help your child burn off extra energy this winter. And just remember, spring will return!