10 Best Sports for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

I am often asked “What are the best sport activities for my child?”. When it comes to kids withSensory Processing Disorder (SPD) they do best with activities that are rich with resistive muscle activity (think push /pull) and rich with movement in all directions (up/down/angular/rotary).  Activities that have firm predictable tactile pressure work well.  These are the three body senses that are the “magic ingredients” for success 1) Muscle and joint  position sense (proprioception), 2) Movement and balance sensation (vestibular) and 3) Tactile input to the skin.  These 3 major body senses help to calm and organize the nervous system which helps your child focus and engage well in the activity. Kids with SPD will succeed with activities that are not chaotic with  people and things moving in different directions (so soccer and basketball are not on the list).  They do best with activities that do not require a lot of idle standing and waiting time which takes baseball off the list.  From my 26 years of experience here are my top 10 sports and activities in no particular order:

#1 Swimming

girl swimming

Swimming is great for so many reasons!  It provides sensory input in all 3 of the main areas movement in all directions (vestibular input), resistive muscle activity which provides improves body awareness (proprioception) and firm constant tactile pressure over the whole body.  It is a fun social activity and important for safety as well.  Be sure to take into consideration the noise level and unexpected splashing.  You can talk with the pool manager and find out the calmer times to come.  Often pools will have a special therapeutic swim time when the pool is warmer.

# 2 Martial Arts


If your child is having problems with self control and aggression this may seem counter intuitive. However, martial arts teaches peace and self control while giving an outlet for physical stress and aggression in a safe and controlled way. I earned my black belt inIsshinryu Karate when I was 18.  All these years of teaching kids karate has helped me see first hand how much it builds self esteem in kids!  Martial Arts is an individual path that lets your child go at their own pace.  It is something that they will learn a tremendous amount of self control in. They will learn to control their bodies and mind.  Martial Arts schools tend to embrace your child and they become part of a big family that can last a lifetime if they wish.  From a sensory point of view it is fantastic!  Your child will get intense input to their muscles and joints with  punching, blocking and kicking exercises. There is a lot of movement in all directions and balance activities. Your child will learn how to roll with a fall and not get hurt.  When learning katas (a series of movements linked together) they will improve memory and sequencing.  Courtesy and respect are always emphasized.  Not all martial arts instructors are created equal. It is best to observe a few classes and get the vibe of the instructor and the students and make sure that they are all kind and respectful to each other.  Your child will do best with a  small class size.

#3 Wrestling


Wrestling is great because it has intense resistive muscle activity and is 1 on 1. This makes it much easier for your child to focus on the activity.  In addition,  there is movement in all directions and firm tactile input making this sport a winner for all 3 major sensory inputs for increasing body awareness and calming the nervous system.

#4 Gymnastics


Often parents have tried gymnastics intuitivley knowing it would be great , but then their child was not able to wait in line and listen to instructions.  A great option is open gym time.  Kids have the opportunity to explore equipment with supervision and they don’t have to stand and wait so much. Also consider private lessons or a smaller class size.  Gymnastics is great for providing excellent sensory input to the body.

#5 Football


This one surprised me at first because I thought it would be too chaotic chasing after the ball until my friend who was a coach explained to me it all depends on the position. For example if you are a lineman you have one thing to focus on and that is the guy in front of you – block him!  Turns out football is a great sport for our kids with SPD!  Lots of intense input to the muscles and joints increasing (proprioception) , lots of movement in all directions and firm tactile input as well. All of this sensory input calms and organizes your child’s body helping them be successful.

#6 Yoga


In addition to providing the wonderful  sensory input, yoga emphasizes relaxation and being calm.  My friend Jeanette Runnings who is an OT  developed a wonderful yoga activity, “Yoga Yingo“,  that is easy to do with your child at home.  It is basically bingo with yoga poses that are kid friendly.  A lot of kids that I work with who seek intense movement do really well with inverted poses (e.g. a regular head stand or tripod head stand with knees on elbows). They are able to get intense joint compression and intense vestibular input by being upside down yet at the same time they are trying to be perfectly still and not fall over.

#7 Kayaking


Kayaking is another wonderful activity for your child to participate in.  The gentle rocking on the water along with pulling the paddle against the water provides wonderful sensory input to the muscles and joint which is very calming. The life jacket provides a firm tactile pressure that is calming as well. Nature is a great source of peace and our kids with SPD need to have opportunities to be out in nature regularly. Check out your local places to rent kayaks. I was able to rent one for only $10/hr on beautiful Lake Chelan in WA this Summer and it sure beat having to haul it and carry it to the water.

#8 Hiking / Horseback Riding


So many of our kids with SPD do great with hiking and horseback riding!  Again, being out in nature itself is wonderful for all the senses. Carrying a backpack adds firm tactile pressure and joint compression which tends to be calming for a lot of kids.  Climbing up hill increases the resistive muscle activity providing more position sense (proprioception). There are ample opportunities for movement and balance challenges along the way from jumping off rocks to balancing on a log. On the horse there is a lot of movement input for balance reactions and your child gets to see the world from a whole new perspective up high.  There are many therapeutic riding programs (also called hippo-therapy)  with skilled volunteers who will either ride with your child or walk along side in order to keep your child safe.

#9 Skiing


Skiing is very rich with sensory input. Many kids with SPD thrive with skiing since they are getting such intense sensation of fast movement, balance and feedback to their muscles and joints as they shift weight to make turns. In fact many parents are puzzled  why their kids are such good skiers and when I evaluate them we still see deficits with body awareness, core strength and balance.  The reason is that when they are skiing the “volume gets turned up” with their body senses and they are able to know exactly where they are in space giving which increases the ability to be coordinated and balanced.  Then when they are trying to sit still in a chair the “volume is turned down” and they loose their sense of body awareness and may even fall out of their chair.

#10 Dance


If your child does not have auditory issues, I think tap dancing is a wonderful source of sensory input to the muscles and joints for position sense (proprioception).  There is so much feedback to every step they take.  Other forms of dance would be more appropriate if your child has auditory sensitivity.

Many of these activities are also available with Special Olympics. This is a great way to make friends, get a lot of family support and be in a non judgmental environment. It is also an opportunity for your child to be with kids who have even greater challenges than they do helping your child have balance and perspective in their life.

Mary Kostka is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist specializing in Sensory Processing Disorder at  her  private practice, ‘Ohana Occupational Therapy, LLC,   in Wenatchee and Leavenworth Washington.