Game On for Children with Cerebral Palsy

Pediatric physical therapists are getting very interested in active video games. No, they’re not joining the ranks of couch potato gamers. They’re using active video games to make exercise more engaging for children with various types of cerebral palsy (CP) and other special needs. Some creatively designed active video games are getting these kids moving to build stamina, strength, range of motion, and mobility.

Margaret O’Neil, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, has co-founded a company called enable Games to develop web-based active video games for use a part of therapy or rehabilitation exercise sessions for children with disabilities, especially CP.1 “Children with cerebral palsy often experience decreased physical activity, motor skills and functional mobility,” she says.

Her team originally used Microsoft’s Kinect as the motion sensor technology to control what happens on-screen during games via gestures and movements. Now, there are multiple ways called a System for Unified Kinematic Input to precisely track the player’s movements from head to toe for player controls. Each game’s design features a way to focus on exercise for specific body parts, whether the child is sitting in or out of a wheelchair.

Experimenting with various exercise activities

In a study titled, “Exercise Intensity Levels in Children With Cerebral Palsy While Playing With an Active Video Game Console,”2 researchers evaluated exercise intensity in children with spastic diplegic CP as well as children who were typically developing while playing with an active video game system. The games involved jogging, bicycling, snowboarding, and skiing, with the intensity level base on their heart rate. The children’s lower extremity motion analysis took place during the final minute with jogging and bicycling games.

“For all 4 games, similar exercise intensity levels were observed for children who were typically developing and children with CP, suggesting that children with CP could obtain exercise-related benefits similar to those obtained by children without CP while playing with an active video game console.” This means that children with CP may achieve some fitness goals through specialized active video games.

A similar study titled, “Active Video Games and Children With Cerebral Palsy: the Future of Rehabilitation”3 produced similar results when comparing the “aerobic solicitation and the postural movements induced by an active video game console in children with diplegic spastic CP.” The researchers concluded that active video games “should be viewed as a promising and playful approach to improve motor functions and aerobic capacity in CP.”

The future of therapeutic active games

While more research is needed to identify the best therapeutic uses for active video games with children who have CP, the results of limited research are promising. Creatively designed games were highly engaging for these children and they definitely got about the same level of exercise as their normally developing peers. Making exercise as fun as possible is key to the success of any pediatric physical therapy regimen. 

1 “Video Game Therapy — Drexel Professors Design Games For Cerebral Palsy Patients”

Drexel University, February 22, 2016.

2 “Exercise Intensity Levels in Children With Cerebral Palsy While Playing With an Active Video Game Console”
Maxime Robert, Laurent Ballaz, Raphael Hart and Martin Lemay 

Physical Therapy Journal. 2013; 93:1084-1091. Originally published online April 11, 2013

3 “Active Video Games and Children With Cerebral Palsy: the Future of Rehabilitation”

International Conference on Virtual Rehabilitation 2011. Rehab Week Zurich, ETH Zurich Science City, Switzerland, June 27 – 29, 2011.

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