Getting Kids to Move: How Non-Traditional Sports Can Benefit Children with Social-Emotional and Learning Challenges

“I’ve tried to get my child to play soccer like I did when I was a kid, but she always stands at the end of the bench and doesn’t talk to anyone. Where can I find a sport where she’ll feel comfortable?

“After my kid comes home from school, he is exhausted and drained. All he wants to do is play video games. How can I get him moving?”

Research has repeatedly proven the benefits of sports and exercise for the well-being of adolescents. Teens who exercise demonstrate greater resilience and emotional regulation, better social communication, moral decision making, and time management, and report having a more positive body image. However, children with mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, and children with neurodevelopmental challenges, such as ADHD or autism, may not feel comfortable participating in traditional sports. Fortunately, nontraditional sports, such as LARPing, Tai Chi, or rock-climbing, are amazing alternatives that can increase interest and comfort for kids who struggle to get involved in more mainstream modes of exercise. Through participation in non-traditional sports, these children can find an activity that aligns with their interests, get active, and improve their physical and mental health (Cohen & Peachey, 2015). 

There are numerous options for a child who is reluctant to join a traditional team sport. The following are only some of the options.

Fantasy Play: LARPing and Quidditch

LARPing, which stands for Live Action Role Playing, is a life-sized adaptation of the game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). During this activity, participants take on the persona, skills, and plot lines of characters in D&D through physical tasks, obstacles, and other activities that the leader of the game puts together (Esslinger, 2015). Navigating the social, physical, cognitive, and emotional demands of LARPing in a safe and engaging environment helps participants develop coping skills that they can then apply in their everyday lives. For example, memorizing and applying character traits during the game improves memory and attention. The immersive nature of LARPing pushes players to safely confront emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear with support from other players and with the ability to come out of the game if necessary. This process can increase stress tolerance and improve emotional regulation skills. Finally, working with others to create a story and complete physical tasks improves fitness and encourages social bonds which create opportunities to practice social skills. Research shows that the benefits and lessons that come from working through these challenges can last a lifetime (Korhonen, 2020).

Quidditch, also known as “muggle quidditch” or “quadball”, is a fictional sport from the Harry Potter universe that has been adapted for real-life play. During Quidditch, players run, jump, throw, and catch all while astride a stick as if riding a broom (here is a video of the Tufts University Tufflepuffs in the US Quidditch cup). When interviewed, Quidditch players reported team pride, a sense of security, support, and inclusion from teammates with a common interest. Players reported that the “quirkiness” of Quidditch and others’ willingness to engage in its “whimsy nature” made them feel more comfortable releasing their inhibitions, which increased their overall self-confidence and self-acceptance. Research has found that participation in Quidditch provides benefits similar to those of traditional sports, including stronger leadership skills, increased social opportunities, and improved self-confidence, as well as an additional level of comfort and support due to the nature of the community of Quidditch players (Cohen & Peachey, 2015).

For children who enjoy role playing, fictional games, or all things Harry Potter, fantasy-based sports can be a great way to get involved in physical activity.

Individual or Group: Tai Chi and Martial Arts

While LARPing and Quidditch are relatively new additions in the world of nontraditional exercise, martial arts and Tai Chi have a long history. Years of research prove the benefits of these alternatives to sports, such as increasing resilience, self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental health (Moore et al., 2021). Martial arts (karate, tae-kwon-do, judo, etc.) are uniquely positioned as a highly discipline-focused sport that measures success based on individual progress. Research has shown that celebrating personal improvement can increase children’s engagement with sports and help them stick with it longer (Drane & Barber, 2016). Therefore, martial arts can appeal to children who do not feel comfortable with the competitive nature of many traditional sports. 

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese exercise that focuses on mind-body connection and mindfulness. It is a non-competitive sport that can be done individually or in a group setting (Bao & Jin, 2015). Research shows that Tai Chi benefits physical health and well as psychological well-being. It decreases stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increases self-efficacy and self-esteem. While many martial arts require sparring partners, Tai Chi can more easily be done alone or independently within a bigger group. This activity can be a good option for kids who want to try martial arts in a less socially demanding environment.

Getting Outdoors: Adventure Based Programs and Horse-Back Riding

For a child who enjoys nature and being outdoors, adventure programs may be a great option. They are group-based programs that allow kids to work together to learn survival skills, work on their physical fitness, and solve problems all while getting fresh air. These programs have been found to promote resilience, psychological well-being, and teach coping strategies to help teens navigate times of stress (Mutz & Müller, 2016). The activities offered within these programs have benefits of their own, making this a highly positive and customizable option. For example, rock climbing, which is often a part of adventure programs, has been found to help teens develop problem-solving skills and to improve their feelings of self-esteem and competence (Lynnes & Temple, 2008).

Horseback riding is another outdoor physical activity that has successfully been used as a therapeutic intervention, a team and individual extracurricular, and both a competitive sport and a non-competitive hobby. This activity is widely adaptable to an individual’s needs and physical or social abilities. In fact, horse-back riding has been found to be beneficial to children with a wide range of physical, cognitive and social-emotional challenges, including autism, ADHD, depression, and PTSD. Studies have shown that horseback riding relieves stress and gives riders a sense of accomplishment (Malchrowicz-Mośko et al., 2020). Additionally, studies show that adolescents experience greater self-esteem, improved communication and engagement in therapeutic settings, and report fewer symptoms of mental health disorders such as ADHD and depression (Smith-Osborne & Selby, 2010). Horseback riding has successfully been used for years to help children feel better and get active and is a fantastic alternative to traditional sports for children who love animals.


Teenagers with social-emotional or physical challenges are at a particular risk for leading a sedentary life-style and experiencing health problems as a result. It may be hard for these kids to feel successful in a mainstream sport, so they may be hesitant to get involved. Fortunately, there are many non-traditional sports and activities, such as LARPing, martial arts, or adventure programs, that provide the same benefits as traditional sports without some of the barriers to participation. Whether a child wants to play outside, engage their creative mind in the fantasy world, or exercise in a non-competitive setting, there is a space where they can thrive and learn skills that will help them successfully transition to adulthood.

Examples of Alternative Sport Programs in the Greater Boston Area

LARP Games: This is an afterschool program hosted by the ACERA school. In this program, children will participate in Live Action Role Play (LARPing) led by a teacher and surrounded by like-minded peers. Additionally, this program encourages the kids to learn the rules and create strategies which allows them to practice their analytical and critical thinking through physical play.

Arlington Recreation (Little Ninjas Karate): Little Ninjas Karate classes are in Arlington, MA and for kids ages 5-7 or 8-12. The class teaches proper stances, discipline, and self-defense, as well as lessons in fire safety, stranger danger, and the importance of nutrition.

Rock Spot Climbing: Rock Spot is a rock-climbing gym with multiple locations in RI, MA, and CT. They offer numerous youth programs to introduce children of all ages to rock climbing in a safe and fun way.

Windrush Farms Horseback Riding: Windrush Farms provides programming for children and adults who want to learn how to ride horses. They cater to people with and without special needs and provide a variety of learning opportunities that improve core strength, balance, and coordination.


Bao, X., & Jin, K. (2015). The beneficial effect of Tai Chi on self-concept in adolescents. International Journal of Psychology50(2), 101–105.

Cohen, A., & Peachey, J. W. (2015). Quidditch: Impacting and Benefiting Participants in a Non-Fictional Manner. Journal of Sport and Social Issues39(6), 521–544.

Drane, C. F., & Barber, B. L. (2016). Who gets more out of sport? The role of value and perceived ability in flow and identity-related experiences in adolescent sport. Applied Developmental Science20(4), 267–277.

Esslinger, K., Esslinger, T., & Bagshaw, J. (2015). Reaching the Overlooked Student in Physical Education: Column Editor: Anthony Parish. Strategies28(5), 40–42.

Korhonen, S., Nykänen, I., & Partanen, E. (2020). Larp-Related Stress. Ropecon Ry, University of Helsinki.

Lynnes, M. D., & Temple, V. A. (2008). Inclusive Artificial Wall Climbing. Physical and Health Education Journal.

Malchrowicz-Mośko, E., Wieliński, D., & Adamczewska, K. (2020). Perceived Benefits for Mental and Physical Health and Barriers to Horseback Riding Participation. The Analysis among Professional and Amateur Athletes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(10), 3736.

Moore, B., Woodcock, S., & Dudley, D. (2021). Well‐being warriors: A randomized controlled trial examining the effects of martial arts training on secondary students’ resilience. British Journal of Educational Psychology91(4), 1369–1394.

Mutz, M., & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence49(1), 105–114.

Smith-Osborne, A., & Selby, A. (2010). Implications of the Literature on Equine-Assisted Activities for Use as a Complementary Intervention in Social Work Practice with Children and Adolescents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal27(4), 291–307.


This blog post was prepared with the help of Andie Stallman, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who is concentrating in Clinical and Developmental Health and Psychology. A former collegiate athlete on the Tufts University Field Hockey team, Andie is passionate about finding ways to make sports and exercise more accessible, so that everyone can enjoy the numerous benefits of physical activity. Andie is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, sibling relationships, and experiences of trauma. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to help children and families develop skills that will enable them to confidently navigate life’s hardships and achieve their individual goals.