Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

Structuring Recreation and Youth Programs to Facilitate Social Inclusion


Lynn Anderson is a Professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies, State University of New York (SUNY), Cortland

"See that man [sic] over there?" "Yes?" Well, I hate him." "But you don't even know him!" "That's why I hate him." – Gordon Allport, On the Nature of Prejudice

People do not automatically or even naturally get to know each other in a group situation unless it is structured to encourage the development of positive interactions. This is especially true if some of the group members are noticeably different than the majority, such as youth with disabilities in a social or recreational setting dominated by peers who do not have disabilities. Coupled with many people's fears of disability, the chances of really getting to know other young people and develop friendships becomes remote in a recreation or youth program setting such as that.

In the 1950s, Gordon Allport developed the contact hypothesis, based on the theory of intergroup relations and social identity. The contact hypothesis provides guidance on how to facilitate positive interactions between group members that lead to improved relationships. The remainder of this article will discuss six principles for structuring group recreation activities (from classrooms to teams to camp groups) for young people based on the contact hypothesis. These principles can help group leaders and other staff set up situations that will foster positive group interaction, social inclusion, and friendship development. These principles will benefit all participants in the activity, not just youth with disabilities.

Provide Frequent and Consistent Opportunities to Get Acquainted

It is essential that group leaders structure recreation activities so participants can get to know each other. By planning activities to have high acquaintance potential, leaders ensure social interactions will occur. When some or all group members are new to the activity, frequent and consistent opportunities to get to know each other become even more important. Suggestions for structuring high acquaintance potential in activities include the following:

  • Provide ice breaker activities (e.g., introductions, share favorites).
  • Break into small groups; do activities in small groups.
  • Arrange seating to promote social interaction.
  • Use pairs or partners; have one partner introduce other partner to group.
  • Mix up groups often.
  • Wear name tags.

Maintain Equal Status

Leaders need to work carefully to structure the recreation activity and situation so each participant has equal status in the group, including the participant with a disability. Equal status reduces negative stereotypes, communicates respect, and is fair. Some ideas for how to structure activities to promote equal status are:

  • Include everyone in the decision-making process.
  • Mix up groups and responsibilities.
  • Change the format in which information is given; provide alternative formats.
  • Ask different group members to demonstrate.
  • Assign roles in activities – everyone gets to try a role.
  • Break down activities and skills to enable everyone to try.
  • Accentuate the equal status of group members: no "special" volunteers, "special buddies," or "charity cases."

Set Mutual Goals

Goals are an important part of many youth programs, even if the goal is to just have fun. Group leaders have the power to shape how goals are formed, and can improve social interaction by structuring the recreation activity so participants perceive they all share a common goal. Some ideas for structuring mutual goals are:

  • Accentuate teamwork to reinforce equal status.
  • Clearly set mutual goals; set the tone for cooperation.
  • Ask the group to set mutual goals.
  • Verbalize and reinforce mutual goals.
  • Allow everyone a chance to play; rotate positions.
  • Instill a spirit of camaraderie.
  • Give feedback to the whole group on progress toward goals.

 Support Cooperation and Interdependence

Cooperation is a powerful force in creating relationships between people. Group leaders can structure the recreation activity to promote active cooperation and a feeling that each individual's successes depend on the successes of the other group members. There are many different types of interdependence (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2008):

  • Positive goal interdependence: Participants perceive they can achieve their goals if, and only if, all members of their group also obtain their goals.
  • Positive reward interdependence: Each participant receives the same reward for completing the task. A joint reward is given for successful group work. Everyone is rewarded or no one is rewarded.
  • Positive resource interdependence: Each participant has only a portion of the information, resources, or materials necessary to complete the task. The participants' resources must be combined in order for the group to reach its goal.
  • Positive task interdependence: The actions of one participant must be completed if the next participant is to complete her or his part.
  • Positive role interdependence: Each participant is assigned complementary and interconnected roles that specify responsibilities that are required to complete a joint task.
  • Positive identity interdependence: The group establishes a mutual identity through a name, flag, motto, or other unifying symbol.

Among the ways to structure activities to support cooperation and interdependence are these:

  • Assign duties or tasks, all of which are needed to successfully complete the activity.
  • Have participants sit in a circle or around a table.
  • Cultivate team spirit and group identity.
  • Use team nicknames, t-shirts, or other group identifiers.
  • Keep verbal communication clear.
  • Use a cooperative structure, where each person completes a part of the whole task.

Provide Accurate Information About the Person with a Disability

Leaders in youth and recreation programs have a unique opportunity to help change attitudes and misperceptions about disability and ability by virtue of having diverse participants jointly succeeding in activities. Group leaders can structure the recreation activity so that all participants receive information about the participant with a disability that is accurate and that doesn't perpetuate stereotyped beliefs about the disability. Some tips for doing so are:

  • At the initial session, explain the disability, or supports and accommodations the individual needs.
  • Let the individual determine what should be shared with the group.
  • Have the individual demonstrate how to use a communication device or piece of adaptive equipment.
  • Create an environment of open communication.
  • Do ice breakers that focus on similarities and differences.
  • Assume a "can do" attitude.
  • Draw attention to the participant with a disability when she or he is doing something very well.

Create Fair and Tolerant Norms

It is essential that group leaders structure the recreation activity so that the situation favors group equality and fairness. They can do this by creating and reinforcing egalitarian norms that promote fair and caring behavior and tolerance of diversity on the part of the leaders, participants, and spectators. Suggestions leaders can use to structure egalitarian norms include:

  • Model positive, accepting behavior.
  • Don't patronize or "over help."
  • Rotate positions, roles, and tasks.
  • Accent positive attributes and skills.
  • Emphasize teamwork.
  • Get diverse input from all group members.
  • Reinforce rules and fairness.
  • Equal out or balance skill levels among participants. 


Relationships and friendships are critical for social and emotional well-being, and group leaders must not leave social interaction to chance (Anderson & Heyne, in press; Heyne, Schleien, & McAvoy, 1993). Since many people, whether they have a disability or not, develop and sustain relationships through their leisure, it is important to nurture that development during recreational activity. While the suggestions in this article do not necessarily guarantee close social ties will occur, they will help create environments where youth have opportunities to get to know each other, learn each other's strengths, and build lifelong friendships.

  • Allport, G. (1954). On the nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing.

  • Anderson, L., & Heyne, L. (n.d.). Therapeutic recreation practice: A strengths approach. State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

  • Heyne, L., Schleien, S., & McAvoy, L. (1993). Making friends: Using recreation activities to promote friendship between children with and without disabilities. Minneapolis: Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

  • Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Holubec, E. (2008). Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MN: Cooperative Learning Institute and Interaction Book Company.