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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

11 More Types of Recreational Therapy For Your Child With Special Needs

In January, I wrote about 10 of the most popular types of recreational therapy.  Since then, suggestions have been pouring in about more ways to turn recreation into therapy.

One of the main benefits of recreational therapy is interaction with people from the local community, which is rarely possible in closed therapy sessions.  Because of the social component, recreational therapy often combines multiple objectives in one session. It’s a holistic approach to wellness.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Recreational therapies help patients recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities, build confidence, and socialize more effectively.”  Here are 11 more ways to achieve those therapeutic goals through recreation.

1. Nature Therapy

Nature Therapy, also called Ecotherapy in the UK and Forest Therapy in Japan, is guided by a mental health professional in a natural setting.  The therapy involves walking and talking in the woods.  That’s it.  Nature Therapy has been clinically proven to reduce stress levels, while increasing relaxation and immune function.

2. Horticultural TherapyGardening

The American Horticultural Therapy Association has been publishing studies on the therapeutic qualities of gardening and cultivating plants since 1973.  Gardening is well-established as a mental health intervention, and horticultural therapy “helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization. In physical rehabilitation, HT can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance, and endurance. In vocational HT settings, people learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions.”

3. Drama TherapyAutismTheMusical

Ever since the documentary “Autism: The Musical” first premiered in 2007, drama therapy has been gaining in popularity for people with disabilities of all ages.  Drama Therapy supports mental health and personal development through performance and theatrical methods.

The North American Drama Therapy Association explains, “This approach can provide the context for participants to tell their stories, set goals and solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis. Through drama, the depth and breadth of inner experience can be actively explored and interpersonal relationship skills can be enhanced.”  Individuals who prefer scripted language may find that drama therapy builds upon their strengths by working with a set script and rehearsing repeatedly.

The Miracle Project in California, 4th Wall Theatre Company in Michigan and In the Company of Kids in Minnesota are both non-profit organizations that provide drama classes with therapeutic goals.

4. iCan Bike

iCan bikeiCan Bike is a five day program that teaches children with special needs how to ride a bicycle.  Working with host organizations at locations across the USA, the program succeeds by “breaking skills into small, achievable goals and celebrating each accomplishment” in order to build “the self-esteem and confidence needed to continue the challenges of learning.” By popular demand, iCan Bike is coming back to Friendship Circle for 2 one-week sessions in July 2015!

5. Adaptive Motorsports

For those who crave an intense sensory experience, a joystick-controlled All-Terrain Vehicle may be the right ticket to adventure.  Adaptive ATVs can be customized to a person’s unique needs.   Few individuals have pursued off-roading as a therapeutic experience, but those few have been vocal about the benefits.  The deep sensory input, social engagement and outdoor environment for off-roading can have a calming effect on the body that lasts for several days.

6. Challenger League

With more than 900 teams worldwide, Challenger League is a division of Little League Baseball for children and young adults with special needs.  Teams are organized by ability rather than age, and games may be coach pitch, player pitch, tee ball or a combination of all three.

7. Wheelchair Basketball

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) has more than 200 teams across the USA for children, men and women.  The teams compete in regional, national and international championships.  The national tournament will be held in Louisville, Kentucky in April, and the annual development camp for Team USA will take place in September.

8. Wheelchair Tennis

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) both promote the sport of wheelchair tennis through rankings and tournaments at the national and international levels.  The USTA supports wheelchair tennis instruction with camps, grants, online classes and an online community.  The organization explains that it is “dedicated to providing top-flight programming and developmental opportunities to wheelchair athletes of all ages and backgrounds. The goal, above all else, is for the athletes to learn the sport of tennis and have fun.”

9. Life Skills Therapy

Educational and medical professionals agree that life skills are essential for independent living and long-term success for children with special needs, but few organizations exist to promote or support life skills education.  Life skills may include, but are not limited to:

  • learning to communicate with community helpers
  • withdrawing money from the bank
  • making a purchase
  • requesting and filling out a job application
  • using a telephone
  • safety awareness

Most life skills groups either do community-based outings or re-create situations as realistically as possible, such as at the Friendship Circle’s Ferber Kaufman LifeTown, where the Lessons for Life program serves students with disabilities from 200 schools.

10. LEGO therapy

LEGO therapy is a highly structured form of group play therapy that supports social skills and executive function skills.  Although the results of studies on LEGO therapy have been promising, few therapists offer it as a treatment.  However, informal therapy groups can be pulled together easily due to the popularity of LEGOs!

11. Adaptive Martial Arts

The Adaptive Martial Arts Association promotes inclusion of athletes with disabilities in martial arts programs.  Through its website, videos, podcasts and newsletters, the association encourages students and instructors to share ideas, curriculum and training information with each other.  The website also maintains a national list of martial arts schools that welcome students with disabilities.

Got more recreational therapy ideas?  Please share them in the comments below!


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Karen Wang

Written on March 16, 2015 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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