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

Therapeutic Recreation in Schools:
Supporting Children's Social and Emotional Well-Being


Linda Heyne is Associate Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York

Sarah, age 6, watches a group of children on the playground and is unsure how to play the game or join the group. Tracey, age 10, sits alone during lunch, while her classmates sitting nearby make plans to go swimming after school. Conrad, age 17, wants to get in shape but isn't sure where to go to work out, how to get there, or with whom to go. These situations illustrate just a few of the challenges that students with disabilities and their families face that can be addressed through therapeutic recreation services.

Most people agree that having time to recreate and use one's free time in meaningful ways is essential to a healthy, well-balanced life. Indeed, some people believe that satisfaction with one's leisure participation is essential to one's overall satisfaction with life. Recreation has been recognized as an important curricular area for students with disabilities for over two decades. And school and community recreation personnel have acknowledged that recreation skills, similar to academic and other life skills, require systematic instruction or they will not be learned (Schleien, Meyer, Heyne, & Biel Brandt, 1995; Heyne & Anderson, 2004; Bullock, Morris, Mahon, & Jones, 1992).

Despite growing awareness of the importance of recreation instruction for students with disabilities, few school staff and parents are familiar with the discipline of therapeutic recreation. Nor are they aware that therapeutic recreation is a related educational service in public schools, and any child who receives special education services is entitled to it. Consequently, few students receive leisure education at school, and many social and emotional needs go unmet.

What is Therapeutic Recreation?

Therapeutic recreation is the purposeful and careful facilitation of quality leisure experiences and the development of personal and environmental strengths, which lead to greater well-being for people who, due to illness, disability, or other life circumstances, need individualized assistance to achieve their goals and dreams (Anderson & Heyne, 2011). Therapeutic recreation specialists work in a variety of community, clinical, and residential settings and support people of all ages and abilities in meeting their goals and aspirations related to leisure and wellness.

A unique aspect of therapeutic recreation is that freely chosen, motivating recreation activities are used to support the participant in meeting his or her goals. Further, therapeutic recreation focuses on the whole person across all the dimensions of human well-being: social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual.

Therapeutic recreation has been authorized as a related educational service ever since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975. With every reauthorization of the subsequent Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), recreation has been reaffirmed as a related service. One of the primary purposes of therapeutic recreation in schools is to help students learn to use their leisure time constructively and in ways that improve their overall quality of life. Section 300.34(c)(11) of IDEA identifies four specific aspects of recreation as a related service: (1) assessment of leisure function, (2) therapeutic recreation services, (3) recreation programs in schools and community agencies, and (4) leisure education (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 2010). Those can be described as follows:

  • Assessment of leisure function. A comprehensive assessment of the student's leisure skills, attitudes, interests, and abilities is conducted to assess functional strengths. The assessment could also address current recreation patterns, social skills, facilitators and barriers to recreation participation, and the ability to participate in a variety of activities. Assessment provides the basis for developing Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, and planning for subsequent instruction.
  • Therapeutic recreation services. Recreation programs are designed to enhance the student's leisure functioning, along with every dimension of well-being. This process involves an individualized assessment (described above), development of goals and objectives, identification of needed accommodations, program implementation, and documentation and evaluation of the student's progress. Depending on the student's interests, he or she may participate in activities such as games, hobbies, music, art, drama, nature activities, scouts, and sports, to name a few.
  • Recreation programs in schools and community agencies. IDEA supports the involvement of students with disabilities in recreation during school and outside of school hours. Therapeutic recreation specialists help schools collaborate with afterschool programs, community parks and recreation, youth development programs, and summer camps to accomplish IEP goals during extracurricular activities. These partnerships strengthen school-community linkages, engage assistance from community-based therapeutic recreation specialists and programs, and support transition-age students as they learn to use community recreation resources on their own.
  • Leisure education. Therapeutic recreation specialists teach students skills, knowledge, and attitudes related to meaningful leisure involvement. Students gain awareness of their recreation participation, learn appropriate social behaviors, become familiar with leisure resources, and identify leisure barriers and facilitators. They may also learn to be more mindful, to savor their recreation activities more, and to use their strengths to the fullest during their leisure experiences. Therapeutic recreation specialists also train parents and educators about how educational outcomes can be enhanced through recreation.

How Do Children Benefit from Therapeutic Recreation?

Learning to interact with others in recreation activities can lead to numerous social and emotional benefits for students with disabilities, including:

  • Enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence through successful participation.
  • Improved communication, social interaction, and friendship skills, as well as more appropriate social behavior through modeling from peers.
  • Increased sense of autonomy, independence, self-direction, and the ability to make choices related to recreation participation.
  • Increased participation in regular physical activity that is intrinsically motivated.
  • Expanded repertoire of leisure skills, with the potential for lifelong participation across a variety of settings.
  • Strengthened feelings of belonging and acceptance in school and community settings.

Social and emotional gains through recreation can also help lay the groundwork for improved learning in academics and functional life skills. As children with disabilities feel better about themselves and feel more connected with their classmates through recreation, they become more receptive to learning in other important life areas.


This article opened with three situations that represent challenges that students with disabilities often face related to recreation and socialization. Sarah was unsure how to join a playground group, Tracey wanted to be included in her classmates' after-school plans, and Conrad hoped to improve his physical fitness but wasn't sure how to go about it. In all three cases, a therapeutic recreation specialist would conduct a comprehensive assessment of the student's recreation interests, abilities, and strengths to develop relevant IEP goals and objectives. The assessment process would involve consultation with family members and appropriate education personnel. For instance, the therapeutic recreation specialist could consult with a speech therapist to support Sarah and Tracey's communication and social skill development. Conrad's transition team leader could provide input on teaching Conrad to use the facilities at a gym and to take public transportation there. Families could identify potential recreation partners from the neighborhood who might share similar interests with their children. Therapeutic recreation services might also teach all three students appropriate social skills during recreation such as greeting others, starting a conversation, cooperating, listening to others, or being a friend. Playground supervisors and lunchroom staff could help facilitate interactions among students. A buddy system or "lunch bunches" could be established to provide companionship during lunchtime and snack periods. The therapeutic recreation specialist could also explore recreation options in the community. Sarah could join 4-H, and Tracey could become a Girl Scout. Conrad could learn to take the bus to the YMCA with a friend from the neighborhood. All three students could connect with parks and recreation programs, nature centers, camps, faith communities, and other public programs and facilities to explore their recreation offerings.

Therapeutic recreation specialists are often the ones to connect-the-dots to facilitate home-school-community linkages. With careful planning and collaboration, many lifelong skills can be nurtured through recreation.


  • Anderson, L., & Heyne, L. (2011). Therapeutic recreation practice: A strengths approach. State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

  • Bullock, C., Morris, L., Mahon, M., & Jones, B. (1992). School-community leisure link: Leisure education program curriculum guide. Chapel Hill, NC: The Center for Recreation and Disability Studies.

  • Heyne, L., & Anderson, L. (2004). Therapeutic recreation in schools: An underutilized service. TASH Connections, 30(5/6), 12–15.

  • Lawson, L., Coyle, C., & Ashton-Shaeffer, C. (2001). Therapeutic recreation in special education: An IDEA for the future. Alexandria VA: American Therapeutic Recreation Association.

  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Related services. Retrieved from

  • Schleien, S. J., Meyer, L., Heyne, L., & Biel Brandt, B. (1995). Lifelong leisure skills and lifestyles for persons with developmental disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.