Therapeutic Recreation Programming

Therapeutic programs offer fun-based, recreational activities that provide children, teens, and adults with special needs a safe environment similar to that offered to the general public. The programs are created for specific age groups with an easy-to-follow structure. 

Goals And Benefits 

The programs’ main goal is to provide more social and leisure opportunities in a variety of settings and in an atmosphere that demonstrates appropriate social behavior. As the participants’ self-confidence in social skills builds, so does their confidence in their talents and strengths as they are encouraged to note and practice areas that need improvement.  

Benefits are a direct result of meeting those goals. In social interactions, individuals become more relaxed and competent in their abilities. They learn to take turns, speak more clearly, express themselves in more polite ways, and use appropriate language to have their needs met. These programs serve as a steppingstone to the same integrated and accessible recreational opportunities offered to the general public. Parents and caregivers are also offered some respite through year-round programming in a safe and enjoyable environment. 


If you wish to include therapeutic recreational opportunities in your city’s programming, begin by exploring the demographics of the target population. Note the ages, the disabilities, and the economic situation of potential participants and their families. To compile this information, contact other resources that are available in the community for individuals with special needs. Another possibility is to hold a free festival, carnival, or some other event at which the attending families fill out survey forms and offer their thoughts on types of recreation for those with special needs. 

Starting Small  

Rather than offering several programs at one time for a variety of ages, begin with one or two programs for a specific age range, and note the type of response you receive.  If the response is positive, then expand on those seedling efforts, adding other programs for different age ranges as you proceed.   

Once a program or two is created, a participant information form can be helpful in identifying the individual’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and allergies or triggers that may set the person off. Remember that this information is confidential and is only to be shared with staff. Another consideration is to make sure the programs are similar to those offered in the local schools’ special-education classes. Use similar songs, communication devices, and picture schedules. 

Structure, Schedule, And Skills 

As participants enter the room for the first time, they may be anxious about what to expect and what is expected of them. Maintaining the same structure and schedule each week will reduce the anxiety and ensure more compliance and fun.   

The length of the program is determined by the age groups. The older participants have more stamina for a three- to four-hour program, while younger participants may only be able to deal with a one- to two-hour program.   

Programs should also try to match the ability levels of the individuals attending. You can be specific about what qualities you are looking for in a single class. For a particular class, you may want participants with significant attention spans, solid mobility skills, and /or effective language skills. Individuals who enjoy being out in the community may benefit from one-day outings to various venues. For example, around the holidays a group can be taken to lunch and then out to shop for gifts. If a group is not capable of traveling around town easily, you might set up a program where visitors from the local police department or fire department visit the center and/or get together at another place to enjoy games, arts and crafts, and socializing.   

In preparing classes, a plan B activity is necessary because some of the participants may finish quickly while others may take much longer. A variety of materials (books, puzzles, games, and physical activities) can fill the time gap.   

Don’t forget that food is a great motivator. A short break that includes a snack or drink provides the participants with some downtime and a chance to rest and regroup. 

Staff And Curriculum

Staff is very important. The members, who should be familiar with working with this population, must be patient, flexible, and assertive.   

Effective communication between staff, parents, caregivers, and participants is especially important. Clear program descriptions will encourage parents and participants to register. Descriptions should include what will happen in the class and what areas of development will be addressed. Note the skills that should already be present in the participants for the class to be most beneficial.   

Parents are looking for classes that will be a good fit for their child, including not only a specific age-range but also interesting content. When parents arrive on the first day, they want to be welcomed, given some information about the activities for that day, and perhaps discuss their child with the staff. They don’t want to see the teacher in the middle of preparing an activity or setting the room up; this can only reflect a lack of organization.   

A volunteer support group can really complement the staff by assisting participants in completing tasks and helping individuals maintain a good attention span.   

The benefits and advantages of creating programs that appeal to specific age levels and individual abilities outweigh all of the time and effort necessary. Recreational opportunities for those with special needs are not that different than what is offered on a daily basis at any recreation center. Adaptation is the key. The real satisfaction is seeing someone enjoy an activity that he or she never thought possible and the contented smiles of the parents.  

Addy Hjarpe, M.S., is the Therapeutic Recreation Supervisor of the Parks & Recreation Therapeutic Programs for the City of Plano, Texas.  She may be reached at or 972-941-7327.