Since play is the main way a child learns, giving your child aquatic tasks designed with play in mind can be both fun and therapeutic. The benefits of aquatic therapy for children with autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and other physical and developmental disabilities are tremendous. While submerged in water we feel effects that mimic weightlessness. Exercising in the water provides relaxation and gives proprioceptive and calming input. By adding well-planned activities and games to your child’s summer routine, you can increase muscle strength, endurance, balance and work on social skills. Adding peers can help children build confidence and lasting friendships. Here are water activities you can do in your own pool:

Note: Swim vests are critical if your child is not a confident swimmer. The added security of the vest helps children slowly build their confidence.

Purchase differently textured pool noodles. Since the skin is the largest organ in our body, providing a variety of textures and tactile experiences is important. Look for smooth noodles, bumpy noodles, noodles made out of foam and inflatable noodles.

  • Ride noodles like a horse. Challenge your child to “ride the horse” across the pool and ride back to the starting point. Do this back and forth across the pool.
  • Loop the noodle in a U-shape and have your child sit on it like a swing. Have him maintain his balance while tossing a ball to you.
  • Use the noodle as if jumping rope. This is a fun challenge that works arm muscles while pushing the noodle under water.
  • You can hold one end of a noodle while your child holds the other end. Pull him around the pool in different ways. For example, ask him to hold on with both hands while he is laying on his back; then try it while he lies on his stomach or on his side. Adjust your speed accordingly.

Use flippers on hands or feet to increase resistance and work on strengthening muscles. Pretend your child is on a scuba excursion and drop interesting things on the bottom of the pool for him to find. Have him place the items in a bucket on one side of the pool so that he has to swim back to it each time.

A large raft can be used as a pretend boat or canoe. Your child can sit on top of the raft and hold a paddle with both hands. The work he is doing while alternating the paddle across his body works on body awareness, crossing the midline and bilateral integration (using the arms together for functional tasks).

In addition, large water shooters such as the “Max Liquidator” are large enough so that a child must use both hands to complete the task of filling them up and shooting them.  Make a bulls-eye pattern on a tree or large box at the edge of the pool and see who shoots the most accurately.

Have your child hold one kickboard with both hands or two smaller kick boards (one under each arm). Kickboard activities work on building strength in the arms, legs and core body.

Make an obstacle course in the pool. At one station, provide a watering can to fill with water and pour into a bucket on the pool’s edge. At another station, put articles of clothing such as shirts or socks. Have children race to see who can “get dressed” while wet for fun. Swimming with the added weight of wet clothing gives input to the pressure receptors of the body.

Remember that there is no wrong way to exercise in the pool. Virtually all aquatic activities will help develop muscles and key skills. The most important thing is to have fun, be safe and relax. You are helping your child make memories that will last a lifetime!

Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L, is the author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series. Find more at