Getting Kids to Move with Alternative Sports

What are alternative sports and how can they benefit teens?

*Note* The five alternative sports highlighted in this brochure are only some of the opportunities that exist. If these are not the best fit for you or your teen, continue to explore and try new things!


This brochure 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 concentrated on 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.

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.

Team Spirit: Benefits of Organized Sports in Adolescence

Adolescence is a tumultuous time. Children have to adjust to their changing bodies, develop a unique, individual identity separate from their parents, and learn about the complexities of life and the world around them. Physical activity is proven to have many mental health benefits for teenagers, including a positive impact on well-being, resilience, and emotional functioning (Hale et al., 2021). A major avenue through which adolescents engage in physical activity is organized sports. Besides the obvious positive effects on physical health, organized sports can provide teens with a sense of peer belonging, help them develop a positive self-concept, and teach discipline. Thus, organized sports can help children master developmental tasks of adolescence and put them on a path towards becoming successful adults.

Peer Belonging: During adolescence, kids must step out from the confines of their immediate family and develop their sense of self within a group of peers. A sense of belonging within a group of friends or teammates helps inspire feelings of competence and provides community and support from peers who are going through similar experiences. Extracurriculars are the common ground on which teenagers can bond. They provide access to diverse groups of people from different racial backgrounds, ages, and even school systems. 

Among the long list of extracurriculars, team sports provide the most robust array of mental health and social benefits (Oberle et al., 2019). While improving physical fitness and strength, teenagers in sports have opportunities to take on leadership roles and responsibilities that stretch their expanding physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities. Team sports provide opportunities to practice social and communication skills as teens work towards a common goal (Oberle et al., 2019). These opportunities foster bonding and a sense of peer belonging which explains why team sports have greater mental health benefits than individually oriented sports and extracurriculars (Oberle et al., 2019). Researchers found that consistent participation in extracurricular activities decreased adolescents’ proportion of risk-taking friends and predicted having a higher proportion of peers who value academic achievement and have strong educational goals (Oberle et al., 2019).

Positive Self-Concept: Adolescence is a time of intense change during which children work through questions about independence, identity, and their place in the world. Their changing bodies can induce intense insecurity and hyperfocus on comparing themselves and how they look to those around them. Sports help teens reorient how they think about their bodies. Instead of focusing on what they see as different, weird, or embarrassing, they are encouraged to focus on their strengths and ability to contribute positively to a team goal. Feelings of competence also come from seeing themselves acquire new physical skills through practice and hard work. Getting leadership opportunities through sports also gives teens a sense of responsibility, accountability, and purpose. These opportunities are crucial for the development of positive identity and confidence as well as navigating questions of individual identity and independence (Hale et al., 2021; Oberle et al., 2019; Bruner et al., 2017).

During adolescence, kids practice skills that they will need for the rest of their adult lives. Sports in middle school and high school are rich with important character-building experiences. Organized sports provide opportunities to develop resilience and self-reflection, as well as improve time management and organizational skills while working on a team. These are all skills they will need to be successful in college, the workplace, and when facing general life stressors. 

Moral Development: Sports provide structure and positive role models, through coaches and peers, that teach them how to be a better person, teammate, and competitor (Agans et al., 2018). Researchers found that peers who put the team and their teammates before personal ambition promoted honesty, selflessness, and diligence in others (Gough, 2013). It is important that coaches promote these qualities in their athletes and that teens have the opportunity to interact with teammates who encourage them to adopt these qualities. Morality is a key aspect of character development and applies to many facets of life. Sports present athletes with many chances to establish values which guide their behavior, such as deciding whether to cheat in order to win or work hard and possibly lose with integrity. These are important character-building opportunities for teens. Repeated exposure to these experiences, coupled with guidance from coaches, can solidify their moral code (Gough, 2013). As is the case with physical skills, repeated practice making morally good decisions will become second nature and carry over into adulthood. Consistency and focus are key to creating these “moral habits” (Gough, 2013). Such discipline becomes ingrained in athletes and is a crucial skill to have when deciding between what is right and what is easy.

Resilience: Team sports also provide opportunities for children to face challenges and failure in a safe environment. Working through challenges and the emotions that accompany them, encourages resilience and perseverance that will help teens take on life’s uncertainties and “bounce back from adversity” (Luthans, 2002 in Michael, 2021). Approaching success and failure as a team promotes collective, team resilience which helps adolescents work through difficult emotions with the support of their peers, coaches, and trusted adults (Michael, 2021). The individual resilience that they gain from this experience can be applied both on and off the field (Michael, 2021). This skill also comes from the self-reflection and self-awareness that is ingrained in athletes during practice (Gough, 2013). They must acknowledge where they can improve and systematically work towards getting better. Instead of giving up and allowing failure to define them, athletes must move past the temporary set back and see how they can adapt and overcome in order to succeed next time. This increases feelings of agency, competency, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Time Management & Life Skills: It is no secret that adolescents are juggling a lot. From friendships to school-work to college applications, being a middle schooler or high schooler is a stressful time. Sports have been proven to help teens develop life skills, such as goal setting, time management, problem solving, and decision making which can make balancing these responsibilities less overwhelming. In fact, students who participate in sports report that they gain these skills at a greater level and speed compared to their peers who are not involved in sports (Cronin & Allen, 2018). These skills will help teens successfully manage their increasing responsibilities in college and beyond.

Conclusion: During adolescence, children go through intense physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, which makes this a stressful and vulnerable time. Participating in sports can help buffer the stresses of adolescence by helping teens develop a sense of competence and by exposing them to a group of positive role models that can support them through this transitional period. Team sports foster resilience in the face of failure, self-discipline, and a strong sense of morality. These and other benefits that come from participating in organized sports can help create the foundation for a successful life of independence and achievement.


Agans, J. P., Su, S., & Ettekal, A. V. (2018). Peer motivational climate and character development: Testing a practitioner‐developed youth sport model. Journal of Adolescence62(1), 108–115.

Bruner, M. W., Balish, S. M., Forrest, C., Brown, S., Webber, K., Gray, E., McGuckin, M., Keats, M. R., Rehman, L., & Shields, C. A. (2017). Ties That Bond: Youth Sport as a Vehicle for Social Identity and Positive Youth Development. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport88(2), 209–214.

Cronin, L. D., & Allen, J. (2018). Examining the relationships among the coaching climate, life skills development and well-being in sport. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching13(6), 815–827.

Gough, R. W. (2013). A Practical Strategy for Emphasizing Character Development in Sport and Physical Education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance69(2), 18–20.

Hale, G. E., Colquhoun, L., Lancastle, D., Lewis, N., & Tyson, P. J. (2021). Review: Physical activity interventions for the mental health and well‐being of adolescents – a systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health26(4), 357–368.

Michael, M. A. (2021). Developing Collective Resilience in Teens Through Team Sports. 8.

Oberle, E., Ji, X. R., Guhn, M., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Gadermann, A. M. (2019). Benefits of Extracurricular Participation in Early Adolescence: Associations with Peer Belonging and Mental Health. Journal of Youth and Adolescence48(11), 2255–2270.


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.

Anger in Children: A Different Approach

It’s the middle of the school year.

Winter break has come and gone, and you and your child are back to the all too familiar arguments about completing their homework before any screen time.

The teacher has sent e-mails letting you know that the work isn’t being done and meetings have been held to try to resolve the issue. At home, behavior charts have been made, decisions on grounding have been enforced, and privileges have been taken away.

Despite all the effort that has been put into the situation, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. When you tell your child that it is time to go do their homework, they explode. Your child starts throwing books on the ground, crumpling papers, and snapping pencils in half. Yelling matches ensue. You feel drained, and your child’s frustration seems to have reached a new threshold.

Before bed after a particularly intense quarrel, you decide to search the internet for something – anything – to help that you haven’t tried before. To your surprise (and relief), you find that many other parents have posted about situations that are similar to yours. Their children display explosive challenging behavior under certain circumstances, but are well-behaved at other times. One parent wrote about how they stumbled across the idea of lagging skills and Collaborative Problem Solving, and how it helped restore peace to their family. You are taken aback by how lagging skills describe areas where your child struggles, and decide that Collaborative Problem Solving just might be worth a shot… Continue reading Anger in Children: A Different Approach

Anger in Children: A Shift in Perspective

Children who struggle to manage their anger lack the skills to do so effectively – this was the idea we introduced in the first article of this series. The term “lagging skills” was coined by Dr. Ross Greene in his book, The Explosive Child, and it’s key to understanding WHY a child is behaviorally challenging, as well as how to help them. (1)

Take a moment to think about children you know who are considered behaviorally challenging. They may or may not have an official mental health diagnosis. However, knowing the diagnosis may not help you understand WHY and WHEN those children have outbursts. A diagnosis can validate that a child is different and requires support, but it also directs your focus to challenging behaviors rather than the reasons behind those behaviors. Continue reading Anger in Children: A Shift in Perspective

Anger in Children: What It Is and When We Should Worry about It

My child will not turn the tablet off when asked – even after ample warnings about the amount of time left to use it. When I finally have to take it away, my child screams and starts throwing books and toys. It’s not uncommon for me to be hit and told that I’m being completely unfair. I’m so tired of having this fight over and over again.

My student will not transition from free play to the class meeting on the rug without an argument. When I try to reason with them, I get yelled at in response and the rest of the class gets riled up. I can’t go the rest of the school year like this.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers sometimes find themselves in these types of situations. Something comes up that angers a child, and despite the earnest efforts of the adult, the child appears to become more and more consumed by their feelings of anger until the situation gets out of control.  Ultimately, the situation is upsetting and frustrating not only for the child, but for the adult as well.

What is anger?

“Anger is a natural emotion that alerts us when something has violated the natural order of how we think things should go (1).”  Not only is it normal to feel anger, but it is one of our oldest and most primitive emotions. It’s hardwired in our brain from millions of years ago. Our prehistoric ancestors became angry whenever they felt threatened or disadvantaged. This served as a survival technique and gave our ancestors the motivation and drive to compete for food and mates. While we may no longer become angry to compete for a piece of meat (thank you, grocery stores), our brains still can’t stand being treated unfairly (9).

When we feel threatened, the part of the brain that controls our emotions, called the amygdala, is responsible for sounding an alarm. The amygdala is incredibly speedy at this responsibility – as little as a quarter of a second kind of speedy. It sends signals to other parts of the brain to prepare our body for action. Our heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense up, body temperature and blood pressure rise. Stress hormones are released into our bloodstream, and blood flows to our limbs and extremities to prepare for physical action – our bodies are ready to fight (1)(4).

Nowadays, most times we don’t need to physically fight someone off when we’re angry. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic and gets to go through a yellow light while you have to stop at the line as the light turns red, you become angry at the driver of the other car. You might want to scream, or even ram your car into theirs. Thankfully, split seconds after the amygdala sounds the alarm, the prefrontal cortex gets activated as well. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls judgment and reasoning, and is responsible for determining how to respond to the triggering event that was recognized by the amygdala. This entire neurological response takes less than two seconds (3). Your prefrontal cortex tells you to take a deep breath, let it go, and keep driving.

If anger is normal, when does it become problematic?

The emotion of anger is present in human beings since infancy. Research shows that infants begin expressing anger during the last half of their first year due to the maturation of their cognitive abilities (9). Babies can become frustrated when an adult intervenes in an activity they are trying to do themselves, or when a favorite toy or object is taken away from them.  At ages 3 and 4, having to share toys and personal space is a source of frustration.  Increased expectations in kindergarten can result in anger (6).

As we explained earlier, our brains alert us when there is something to be angry about, then figure out how to respond to that trigger. In short, our brains are wired to react to an event before determining the sensibility and consequences of our actions. Learning to respond to our feelings of anger appropriately is a skill that has to be learned, not something we’re born knowing how to do. Thus, when babies get angry they respond by screaming and crying, and we have to do the anger management work for them. All through the toddler and preschool years, children are learning to manage their emotions (including anger) in socially acceptable ways. We help young children develop this skill by encouraging them to use their words, helping them identify their emotions, and providing them with strategies such as counting to 10 when angry.

Continue reading Anger in Children: What It Is and When We Should Worry about It

Social Thinking: Helping Children Navigate Social Interactions

“I know my son wants to make friends, but when he plays with others, the kids complain that he is being bossy.”

“My daughter came home from school and told me that she has no one to play with during recess.”

“I think my middle-schooler doesn’t know how to begin a conversation.  He’ll say ‘Hello’ to his peers and then look down at his shoes.”

These children, along with many others, likely have trouble navigating social interactions.  They may have difficulty understanding other people’s point of view and recognizing how their behaviors impact the way others feel about them.  Although some of these children have specific disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, many typically developing children also struggle with mastering age-appropriate social skills.

We used to think that social ability was a fixed trait, and that some people were naturally better at navigating social interactions than others.  Thanks to the pioneering work by Michelle Garcia Winner and her colleagues, we now know that social  skills can be learned with guidance and repeated practice.  The process called Social Thinking (1) helps people realize that during their interactions they have the power to affect the thoughts and feelings of others.  In this article, we will explore the concept of Social Thinking further.

Continue reading Social Thinking: Helping Children Navigate Social Interactions