Eight summer activities for children with special medical needs (and the families who love them)

Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic.  She is a regular contributor to Thriving.

Meaghan_OKeeffe_1Summer is approaching and school is nearing its end. For those who’ve endured a long, tough winter, warmer weather and a nice vacation can’t come soon enough.

Finding activities to keep your children busy during the summer months can prove challenging. But when you have a child with special medical needs, it’s a whole new ball game. Some kids have physical limitations that make certain activities difficult. Some are wheelchair-dependent. Some need a high degree of sensory stimulation, while others become easily overwhelmed and agitated when exposed to too much activity. On top of that, families with a child who has special needs may have other able children who need summer entertainment as well. Sometimes, finding an activity that includes and engages the whole family is hard.

Whether you’ll be staying put this summer or have plans to travel, here are some fun and inclusive activities for the whole family to enjoy.

Close to Home

Berry Picking

Berry season is upon us. From strawberries to blueberries, raspberries to blackberries, fresh in-season fruit is yours for the picking. Picking berries is a fun activity for kids of all levels and an opportunity to spend time outdoors in an open, stress-free environment. Check out PickYourOwn.org for a farm in your area and for easy-to-follow canning and freezing instructions. Call ahead to find out about wheelchair accessibility or bathroom facilities.

Outdoor Music

If your child finds music soothing, check your area newspapers for free outdoor concerts. Outdoor concerts, typically in public parks, make it easy to walk around with your child if she finds sitting still difficult or needs a break. Outdoor concerts also make it possible for you to keep your distance if your child finds loud noises over stimulating.

Nature_child_In-a-fieldBird Listening

Even in the most urban of areas, birds are all around us. Listening for their individual sounds can be a calming and fun activity that encourages your child to spend time outdoors. The BirdTunes app, available for $9.99, is an inexpensive resource to help identify various bird sounds.

Martial Arts

This mom shared her story about how martial arts helped her daughter on the autism spectrum blossom into a more self-assured, confident little girl. Check local martial arts studios to see if they have a program that might fit your child’s unique needs.

Horseback Riding

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) says that therapeutic riding for those with special needs can promote cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. Visit their website for more information and to find a PATH-affiliated center in your area.

Destination Vacations

Morgan’s Wonderland

Morgan’s Wonderland, located in San Antonio, Texas, is a one-of-a-kind amusement park designed to meet the needs of individuals with physical and cognitive differences. Among the attractions are a water play area, wheelchair swings, sand circle and music garden. Per the park website, individuals with special needs are free of charge. There is a general adult admission and a special rate for children 3 to10, seniors and members of the military.

Swimming with Dolphins

Jake with a dolphin

For many, the cost of a program like Island Dolphin Care may be difficult to cover. But if you can swing it, swimming with dolphins may just be the highlight of your life, not just your child’s. Island Dolphin Care, located in Key Largo, Florida, is a five-day therapy program that also offers a family swim and inclusion of siblings during the program (when appropriate).

Summer Camp

Summer camps designed to accommodate children with special needs can provide appropriate activity and learning opportunities for a child. It can also help foster independence, while giving caretakers a chance to replenish. Visit the American Camp Association to find a special needs camp that will be most suitable for your child’s needs. If you’re feeling uneasy about placing your child in a new setting, ask the camp if they can connect you with a parent who is willing to answer any questions you may have.