The Art Of Adaptability

By Addy Hjarpe

Recreational opportunities for those with special needs are really not that different than what is offered on a daily basis at any recreation center. They just take some adaptation. A few adjustments not only will allow individuals with special needs to enjoy the activities, but will provide diversity in appealing to a broader audience.

Stepping Out
Some programs may not even require adaptations. Outings to various museums, zoos, parks, and restaurants, for example, can be available for special needs without labeling them as such. Although some preparation is required for these outings, it doesn’t take much. First, make sure that the venue is wheelchair-accessible. Many places offer discount admission fees and/or free admittance for students and individuals with special needs; be sure to check pricing before an event so a group can attend at a reasonable rate. For restaurant outings, make reservations and check out the prices to be sure everyone brings enough money to cover the costs. Use the Internet to learn about menu items in order to reduce the stress of decision-making at the restaurant. Each participant should order and then pay for himself or herself. Ask that the bills include the tip to ensure a quick and easy payment for each person. This makes them feel empowered and independent.

Or try a movie night out with pizza. This can be pre-arranged so the pizza is ready at the local pizza parlor upon arrival, and movie tickets can be purchased online so the group doesn’t have to wait at the theater. 

For the holidays, take a group of young adults with special needs on a mobile tour around local neighborhoods to see holiday lights, and top off the evening with holiday cookies and punch.

Staying In
Not all programs require leaving the parks and recreation premises, however. There are plenty of good times to be had in your own facilities.

Trendy programs like yoga, fitness classes, and swimming, for example, can be adapted to provide fun and exercise opportunities. Or provide a respite program filled with fun activities like arts and crafts, music and movement, snacks, and a favorite Disney movie. This type of program not only benefits the caregivers, giving them some free time, but also benefits the children by allowing them to spend an evening with their peers. This does not require much preparation—find a location at your recreation center, schedule staff and volunteers, and provide age-appropriate toys and games that include puzzles, balls, coloring sheets/markers/crayons, music and movement, a movie, and a snack. 

Dances are another great social setting. All that’s needed is a location, and for parks and recreation organizations there is always space available. Hire a DJ, and schedule staff. With the support of volunteers, staff members can assist participants who require one-on-one attention; encourage shy participants to mix in.

Games For A Group
Social skills also can be enhanced through group games. Players will learn the rules of waiting their turn and how to use language skills appropriately. Have you ever played racing games that don’t involve running? Well, this is a setting for a fun-filled afternoon with games that everyone can play, no matter the limitations. Offering food and games is a great combination. Players can bring their own lunch, and drinks and dessert can be provided; or pizza, sub sandwiches, or takeout fried chicken are an alternative.

Here are some games that everyone can play:

Color Sorting


  • Three cups—one red, one white, one blue
  • Poker chips
  • A timer.

Line up each colored cup. Place a stack of colored poker chips in front of each cup. On “go,” a player places the correct colored chip into the matching cup, one chip at a time. Each player takes a turn, with two or three rounds. The one who sorts the most chips correctly is the winner. Limit turns to 2 to 3 minutes.

Card Flip


  • A bucket, pail, or basket
  • A deck of cards
  • A timer.

Place the bucket/basket in the center of a table. Place a strip of masking tape 1 to 3 feet from the receptacle. Place a stack of 15 playing cards below the masking tape. On “go,” a player tosses or flips the cards into the bucket, one at a time. Each player takes a turn, with two or three rounds. The one with the most cards in the basket wins. Limit turns to 2 to 3 minutes.

Block Stacking


  • Eight to 10 large cardboard blocks, (shoe boxes are good for this game)
  • A timer.

Demonstrate how to stack the blocks in a particular design. Place them in front of a player in a single row (not stacked). On “go,” a player tries to stack them in the demonstrated shape. The winner is the one who stacks the blocks in the correct design. Limit turns to 2 to 3 minutes.

For Best Results
Choose a location that can handle a lot of noise, cheering, and laugher. Players can be “buzzed” by others for not following the rules, in which case they must then start over; this generally is met with friendly chiding among competitors that will create more noise. Cheering is at its peak when a player gets up to play as the “time out” nears. The most fun occurs when staff members play and the participants cheer them on, or buzz them when they don’t follow the rules.

Awarding prizes is not really necessary. The real reward is in the fun and laughter that take place.

Addy Hjarpe, M.S., is recently retired, having served as the Therapeutic Recreation Supervisor of the Parks & Recreation Therapeutic Programs for the City of Plano, Texas. Reach her at