Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities

Ideas for Encouraging Children's Friendships Through Recreation


Linda A. Heyne is currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Therapeutic Recreation and Leisure Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York

Stuart J. Schleien is Professor and Department Head with the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Leo H. McAvoy is Professor and Head with the Division of Recreation and Sport Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Families, school personnel, and community recreation staff all play a role in encouraging the growth of friendships between children with and without disabilities. The following recommendations from members of all three groups address some of the ways that friendships can be promoted through recreation activities in homes, neighborhoods, schools, and community recreation programs.

What Families Can Do

Families can take many positive steps to influence friendship building between children with and without disabilities through recreational activities. Recognizing that friendships for their children will generally not occur by themselves, parents recommend to other families the following approaches for encouraging friendships:

  • Make friendship development a family priority. If friendships are to develop and thrive for children, parents must make friendship development a family priority. Given the many demands on a family’s time, the only way that friendships for children can be given the attention they deserve is to rank friendship development as one of the family’s foremost values.
  • Become acquainted with other families. To identify neighborhood peers who can potentially be friends with their children, parents must become acquainted with other families in their neighborhoods. An ideal way to get to know other families is to meet them through school functions and at community recreation centers.
  • Schedule children’s times together.If children’s friendships are to grow, children need frequent and ongoing opportunities to play together and interact. Parents must play an active role in making certain these opportunities take place. For example, families can request each other’s phone numbers and addresses. Also, parents can take the initiative to call other parents or teach their children to use the telephone to arrange times for friends to see each other.
  • Invite children into homes and on outings. As children themselves have told us, an indication that classmates have become friends is that they play together outside of school. Children might stop off at a friend’s house after school, be invited to a birthday party, ride bikes together on the weekend, go to a movie, or simply “hang out” together in the neighborhood. Parents can take an active role in suggesting these or similar activities to their children and in making arrangements for their friends to join them. Or, if children themselves ask to play with a friend, parents can respond by making arrangements for the activity.
  • Learn about the individual needs of children. To feel comfortable assuming responsibility for children with special needs in their homes, parents of non-disabled children need to learn about the individual needs of friends with disabilities and how to meet them. For example, more information may be required about mobility, communication, managing inappropriate behaviors, or personal care needs. Discussing these needs with a parent of a child with a disability – or if a parent grants permission, a school teacher – can help assuage questions and fears, and open up new opportunities for informal play between children with and without disabilities.
  • Discuss children’s friendships at home. Parents can support their children’s relationships by discussing them at home. Parents can talk with their children about what it means to be a friend and have one. They can ask their children questions related to a particular friend. Or they can find out if there are any classmates in school or peers in the neighborhood that their children might like to get to know better.
  • Encourage positive social interactions. To facilitate friendships between children with and without disabilities when they visit in homes, parents must learn some basic techniques to encourage positive communication and interaction between the children. Techniques developed in the area of inclusive recreation, such as arranging for cooperative play and teaching friendship skills, can be extremely valuable for parents who attempt to facilitate home play for their children.
  • Learn about community recreation resources. As a means of seeking opportunities for children with and without disabilities to share experiences, families can explore neighborhood recreation resources, such as neighborhood parks, recreation centers, nature centers, and shopping malls, as well as organized leisure programs through organizations such as YMCA/YWCAs, scouting, and Jewish Community Centers. Children with and without disabilities might enroll in an activity class together, take part in a community event, play at a playground, or shop together. Through building a shared history of experiences in the community, the bonds of friendship can be strengthened.

What School Staff Can Do

Along with families, school personnel can play an important part in encouraging friendships between students with and without disabilities. Here are recommendations that have been offered for facilitating and supporting friendships through recreation activities during the school day:

  • Include social and recreation skills in curricula. Providing opportunities for students to learn social interaction and recreation skills along with academics can help students to gain self-confidence, learn how to get along with and respect others, build enduring relationships and friendships, assume responsibility, solve problems, and make decisions. These goals can be achieved by involving children with and without disabilities in small group, cooperative activities at regular periods throughout the school week. Within these groups children can be taught, and be given frequent opportunities to practice such skills as greeting each other, listening to each other respectfully, taking turns, initiating and engaging in conversations, brainstorming ideas, expressing opinions, and solving problems when they arise.
  • Assign friends to the same classroom. Children tend to make friends with other children who are in the same classroom. If friends who were in the same class one year are not assigned to the same class the following year, they will have fewer opportunities to spend time together and, as a result, their friendship might not continue. Teachers can pay special attention to friendships that develop between children with and without disabilities, make arrangements so those children can be in the same classrooms from year to year, and support those friendships by arranging times for children to play and work together on a regular basis.
  • Provide opportunities for families to become acquainted. If children with varying abilities are to become friends, their parents need to have opportunities to meet each other, become acquainted, and mutually support the relationships. Schools can serve as common, non-threatening bases for parents to get to know each other. Schools can provide these opportunities by sponsoring school open houses, potluck dinners, open swim or gym times, family nights, community education classes, PTA meetings, and family focus groups.
  • Include friendship and recreation goals in the IEPs. Every child who receives special education services has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is reviewed annually. Recreation has been identified in several federal laws as a “related service” that parents can request to be included in the IEP. Including recreation, friendship, or social interaction goals and objectives on an IEP will ensure that the skills related to these goals will be taught, monitored, and evaluated regularly.
  • Train school personnel on children’s friendships.Teachers and other school staff whose training may have emphasized academic skills may need supplementary training in the importance of teaching social interaction, friendship, and recreation skills, and techniques to support and maintain children’s relationships and friendships.
  • Offer disability awareness training to parents and nondisabled children. In order to eliminate stereotypes about individuals with disabilities, children and parents need to receive accurate information about disabilities and individuals who have them. Schools can sponsor educational sessions about people with disabilities, presenting information through puppetry, testimonials by individuals with disabilities and/or their parents, books, pictures, and displays of specialized equipment such as hearing aids, braces, or communication devices. Local chapters of advocacy organizations, such as Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, or the Epilepsy Foundation can also be used as resources for information about people with particular disabilities.
  • Tell parents when friendships develop. Because parents rarely have opportunities to observe their children during the school day, they may have no idea that their children have friends at school. Lack of knowledge about their children’s friendships can contribute to parents believing that their children cannot make friends. When teachers inform parents of budding relationships between children with and without disabilities, parents learn that such relationships are possible for their children, and can then take an active role in nurturing them.

What Community Recreation Staff Can Do

Community recreation personnel can create many ideal opportunities for children with and without disabilities to meet, get to know each other, and become friends through participation in a variety of recreation activities. Community recreation agencies, which already include individuals with varying abilities in their regular recreation programming, have offered us the following recommendations for ensuring inclusive recreation that encourages the development of children’s relationships:

  • Welcome all children in recreation programs. Community recreation staff can develop mission statements that explicitly state an agency’s intention and ability to serve persons with varying abilities. Brochures and news releases that advertise programs should invite participation by individuals with disabilities, and clearly indicate who to contact if an individual needs accommodations in order to participate in a program. In this way, an agency can make a public statement that individuals with disabilities are welcome and will be served inclusively.
  • Ensure architectural accessibility. Community recreation staff should be certain that their facilities, parking lots, and playgrounds are physically accessible for individuals with disabilities. For example, ramps, elevators, curb cuts, reserved parking spots, and accessible drinking fountains and restrooms should all be in place and operative to accommodate individuals who need them.
  • Ensure program accessibility. Participants who register for community recreation programs need assurance that their special needs can be met in those programs. Community recreation agencies need to be prepared to meet individual needs by adapting activities or equipment, providing one-to-one assistance, educating non-disabled participants about disabilities, and managing behaviors.
  • Educate staff to meet individual needs. If program leaders lack knowledge and experience in working with individuals with disabilities, they may feel reluctant or unqualified to serve them. Agencies should take responsibility to educate their staff on disability issues and up-to-date strategies for including participants with disabilities in recreation programs. Through education and experiences, recreation staff can change their attitudes about inclusion, and gain confidence and expertise in meeting participants’ individual needs.
  • Provide cooperative activities that promote positive peer interactions. Community recreation staff may need to re-evaluate their programs to ensure that inclusive activities can become a reality. They might ask themselves: Can all participants be involved in programs to their full potential? do programs emphasize competition and individual achievement at the expense of cooperation, social interaction, group learning goals, and relationship building and friendship? Providing opportunities for children to play together in cooperative groups reinforce inclusion, socialization, interdependence, and an awareness and appreciation of others.
  • Coordinate after-school activities and school schedules.Because of a shortage of school buses or funds to pay drivers, in many communities bus drivers need to stop at more than one school to drive children home. Consequently, school days may end at various times within one community. Because of this situation, community recreation staff should pay close attention to school dismissal times and coordinate schedules for after-school programs so that children with and without disabilities can attend them.


For children with and without disabilities to become friends, they must have opportunities to be together as peers in recreational activities. Parents, school personnel, and community recreation staff all play an essential role in creating and shaping these opportunities.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from “How to Encourage Friendships: Strategies for Use in Home, School, and Community”, in Heyne, L.A., Schleien, S. J. & McAvoy, L H. (1996)., published by the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.