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

The Meaning of Social Experiences in Recreation Settings


Donna Goodwin is Assistant Professor in the College of Kinesiology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

What do you remember about your summer camp experiences as a youth? The first time you scooted across the water on an inner tube behind a powerboat? The anticipation of seeing again someone you met the previous year? Sleeping in a cabin with seven other campers away from the watchful eyes of your parents? Many of these experiences remain in our memories forever. For some of us, however, what we remember about being at camp was the embarrassment of throwing up late at night on another camper’s sleeping bag, or tripping and falling in front of a group of campers on the way to the outhouse and hearing the snickers for the remainder of the week, or an insensitive comment from a group leader about our ineptness in a canoe. The happy memories created over an entire week can be wiped out in an instant through the unfeeling words of a fellow camper or leader. It is the emotionally sensitive memories that tend to stay with us.

What we experience and give emotional memory to can be so much more than what is evident to those observing from the outside. How we experience a particular environment or activity depends not only on what we are asked to do, but how we are asked to do it, and the response we receive for our efforts. Thoughtful leadership means endeavoring to understand the meaning participants give to their experiences. Effective leaders appear to have the ability to read and interpret inner thoughts, feelings, and desires from indirect cues such as body language, expressions, demeanor, and gestures (Blinde & McCallister, 1998). The impact of the embarrassment, frustration, humor, or exuberance of individuals or groups is within the consciousness of successful leaders. Practiced instructors seem innately able to interpret and gauge the social significance of these experiences for another’s inner life. Moreover, tactful leaders can sense the right thing to do in situations in which action is required.

The recreation environment is one in which participants can come to be known not as a label (“the wheelchair participant” or “the blind kid”), but by name. It would seem an impossibility to understand how a participant is experiencing the recreational setting if they are identified first as a label and only secondly as a person. Recreational settings also provide an opportunity to get to know something about the person that reflects their individuality. An extension of knowing someone is the respect they receive as they hold a place of priority in our day.

The remainder of this article offers a series of reflective questions for recreation providers to ask themselves about their program’s activities, and about the interactions between people that take place through the program. These questions can enhance the ability of recreation providers to understand how participants experience recreational settings and the meanings they give their memories.

Will My Assistance Be Self-Supporting or Self-Threatening?

The assistance provided by leaders and fellow participants is one of the ways in which we encourage and support the success of recreation program participants. To offer support successfully requires a shared understanding of the participant’s goal and contextual understanding of the task. At all times, interactions with participants in our programs should enhance their sense of self and of personal worth (Graham, 1995). If the participant is determined to be independent in the completion of the task at the expense of running over the time allotted, and the instructor provides unwanted help to complete the task within the allotted time, there is tension between the goals of the leader and those of the participant. What is perceived to be a well-planned and successful activity to the leader could be perceived as a threat to independence and self-esteem and result in feelings of inadequacy on the part of the participant.

Help that is perceived by the participant to be functional in nature because it assists with mobility needs or the successful completion of a task, or because it positively supports active participation in an activity, is often welcomed. Similarly, help that is offered in a caring manner and at the request of or with permission from the participant can result in a satisfying and mutually rewarding social interchange. When help threatens the participant’s independence or self-image or is provided in a non-caring and potentially harmful way, the social interchange can come to be perceived as invasive and hurtful. The imposition of help when not wanted can undermine and question the person’s competence, desire for independence, and yearning to learn new things.

As recreation leaders there are several questions relevant to this area that we should always be asking ourselves:

  • Do I know the participant’s goal(s) for this activity?
  • Will the support I, or my staff, provide be instrumental in assisting the participant to achieve his or her goal(s)?
  • Will my assistance threaten the participant’s sense of independence, remove an opportunity to demonstrate previously learned skills, inhibit new learning or call into question his or her competence?

Will Opportunities for Choice Be Afforded or Eliminated?

Most individuals tend to be more motivated when they are able to exercise personal control over what they do. In applying this to a recreation setting, we as recreation leaders must ask ourselves if we have provided opportunities for the participants to provide input into the program. Are participation alternatives presented to the participants or is the program scripted and the opportunity for choice minimized? In Western society, our independence, self-worth, and dignity are reflected in our ability and opportunity to make choices about our lives. Exercising choice and making decisions is a life skill that is expected of those who live in the community. To make a decision requires a number of steps, including listing relevant alternatives, identifying the consequences of acting on the alternatives, assessing the probability of the consequence occurring, establishing the value or utility of each consequence, and identifying the most attractive course of action. It is only after alternatives have been identified and their consequences understood that informed choice-making can occur. The alternatives presented to participants must be meaningful for there to be true choice-making; offering an unattractive choice is equivalent to offering no choice at all.

As recreation leaders there are several questions we should ask ourselves:

  • What efforts have I made to provide opportunities for, guidance in or support of participant decision-making?
  • Are the alternatives I provide meaningful to the participants?
  • Are participants permitted to act on their decisions in meaningful ways?

Will the Activities Promote Social Belonging or Social Isolation?

Recreational involvement can contribute in very positive ways to a participant’s sense of belonging. The sharing of common experiences, recognition by others, support for participation, and acknowledgment of contributions to the group can provide deep and personal meaningfulness. Conversely, involvement that results in a participant’s contribution being devalued by being laughed at, stared at, ignored or seen as an object of curiosity can be very damaging and socially isolating (Goodwin & Watkinson, 2000). Preconceived notions about what a participant can do further reinforces the message of rejection.

Listening to the narratives of participants, attending to peer talk, and seeing what is transpiring in our programs can result in tactful responses to issues of acceptance, sharing, helping, acts of exclusion and inclusion, and the like. Moment-to-moment reactions to experiences can be captured through attention to facial expressions, eyes, tone of voice, and gestures. Instantly knowing how to gather, read, interpret, and act on the social environment is truly the sign of an experienced and caring leader.

As recreation leaders we should ask ourselves these questions :

  • Do I take the time to talk to the participants about what they are thinking and feeling?
  • What other strategies do I use to understand the experiences of the participants?
  • What cues do I attend to that will help me understand how the participants are experiencing their involvement?
  • How do I use this information in my planning and programming?

Am I Maximizing Participation or Restricting Opportunities?

We seldom restrict involvement in our programs through overt actions. Often, it is our uncertainty about appropriate participation expectations and inexperience with activity adaptations that limit participation. Prejudgments about abilities and assumptions about interests and desires can also unnecessarily restrict participation. Involvement is as much about the participants discovering and coming to understand their own abilities and who they would like to become as it is about the leaders providing opportunities for participation.

As recreation leaders we can ask:

  • What preparation have I done to take participant interest and previous experiences into account?
  • Where can I go to gather more information about equipment adaptations, instructional support and expertise, and facility availability?
  • What assumptions do I hold about participants with disabilities, are they warranted, and how can I check their validity?
  • What new activity opportunities am I providing that may not have been experienced previously?


Once we remove the onerous task of assuming that as recreation leaders we must develop, schedule, and resource our recreational program independent of input from our participants and the social meaning they give to their participation, we open possibilities to explore new opportunities. Providing occasion for input, choice, shared decision-making, creativity in thinking, and the dispelling of previously held assumptions create a climate of mutual growth, exploration, and self-discovery. The best solutions to challenges before us are often discovered collaboratively.


  • Blinde, E. M., & McCallister, S. G. (1998). Listening to the voices of students with physical disabilities. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 69(6), 64–68.

  • Goodwin, D. L., & Watkinson, E. J. (2000). Inclusive physical education from the perspective of students with physical disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 17(2), 144–160.

  • Graham, G. (1995). Physical education through students’ eyes and in students’ voices: Introduction. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 14(4), 364–371.