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Athletic activity and recreation are important for everyone, regardless of mental capacity. Sports and athletic activities can make a positive difference in problems experienced by mentally retarded children. These problems include poor physical fitness, obesity, restlessness, boredom, hyperactivity, and social immaturity. Most health professionals and social workers believe that mild to moderately retarded children and adults can and should participate safely in many athletic activities, as long as they are supervised adequately. This section presents guidelines to parents or guardians of mentally retarded children and adults who are considering an exercise program or athletic competition for them.


  • Encourage and stress activities that require gross motor (large-muscle) coordination rather than fine motor coordination.

  • Stress the right kinds of activities. Mentally retarded children find more satisfaction and success in participating in dual and individual sports rather than team sports. Retarded children may benefit from non-competitive sports with normal children.

  • Teach and encourage games, which are more interesting than exercises. The following sports and activities are recommended: tennis, folk-dancing, shooting baskets, running races, playing catch, boating, bicycling, and hiking. Less suitable activities that are not recommended include basketball, football, or baseball.

  • Match competitors evenly so each child has a chance to win sometimes. Have children participate with each other according to developmental age rather than chronological age. Otherwise, some individuals may fail repeatedly, damaging their self-esteem--and turning a positive situation into a negative one.

  • Keep records of improvement, and share them with the retarded child.

  • Support development of athletic opportunities at the community level. For more information about programs for the mentally retarded, contact either of the following:

    The Special Olympics, Inc.
    1350 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 500
    Washington, D.C. 20005

    Division of Innovation and Development
    Department of Education
    Donahue Bldg., Rm. 3159
    400 Maryland Ave., S.W.
    Washington, D.C. 20202

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