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

Using Recreation to Support the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth


Ann Hoffer is Director of the JCC's Inclusion and Accessibility Services

One of the primary reasons people participate in recreational activities is to socialize with others, which can result in tremendous benefits for overall well-being. Through recreation, people discover who they are as individuals and who they are as members of a group. They learn the give-and-take of relationships, appropriate manners and customs, and the skills necessary to make and keep friends. People also discover what gives them joy, passion, and meaning in life. Through recreation, people have new experiences, engage more fully in living, and develop healthy lifestyles.

Recreation is important for all ages, but it is especially crucial during children's formative years. Socialization opportunities through recreation are needed to support their social-emotional maturity into healthy adulthood. Recreation, like any life skill, requires intentional instruction and support.

This article presents profiles of two inclusive recreation programs in St. Paul, Minnesota, that provide carefully planned recreation opportunities that support the social-emotional well-being of children and youth with and without disabilities. The first story describes how the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of the Greater St. Paul Area includes preschoolers through adults with disabilities in all of their offerings. With over 25 years of experience in inclusive recreation programming, the JCC provides a long-standing model for successful inclusive recreation. The second story reflects a grassroots response to the need for recreation and socialization opportunities for teens and young adults with disabilities. The member-driven Highland Friendship Club (HFC) offers a variety of formal and informal recreation activities that connect and enrich the lives of young people with and without disabilities.

JCC Inclusion and Accessibility Services

What started out as an innovative idea in 1984 – fully inclusive programming – has now become the standard at the JCC. Every day you see people of all abilities participating in its many recreational, educational, and cultural programs.

The JCC was inspired by the desire for inclusive programming expressed by a group of parents of children with disabilities over 25 years ago. Twelve children and youth with disabilities were included in the JCC's regular programs and classrooms in its first year. Today, the JCC serves over 100 children, teens, and adults with disabilities throughout its programs. The JCC's philosophy of inclusion is that each individual with a disability deserves an equal opportunity to participate in programs as fully and independently as possible.

The JCC's Inclusion and Accessibility Services (IAS) department provides a supportive and proactive approach to inclusion. The IAS director works closely with families and individuals throughout the inclusion process, which includes an initial intake assessment and interview to develop an individualized plan based on the participant's abilities, needs, and interests. Inclusion facilitators are trained on inclusion techniques to support individuals who need one-to-one attention to actively participate.

There are many opportunities for inclusion at the JCC. Some of the more popular programs are the preschool and after-school programs, swim lessons, theater productions, basketball leagues, and summer day camps. A positive result of inclusion is increased participation in social and recreational programs by the participants with disabilities. As each young person gains confidence and builds skills through successful participation, he or she is likely to become involved in other JCC programs. Further, some participants take on leadership roles such as summer day camp counselor (see photo below of Drew Danisch, at right, assistant day camp counselor, with camp program director Rafi Forbush).

Children and youth with disabilities have benefited from inclusive recreation programming in many ways that support their social and emotional well-being. Some of the benefits include positive socialization with peers, improved communication skills, the development of friendships, increased leisure skills, appropriate behavior development, enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence, increased autonomy, and a feeling of community and acceptance for all. Just as important are the lessons learned by the participants without disabilities. In a recent survey sent to all camp families, parents were asked if they thought children without disabilities benefit from the inclusion of peers with disabilities. It was no surprise that 100% of the respondents said "yes." The benefits they saw included learning about individual differences and how to interact with someone with a disability, and forming friendships with people of all abilities.

Through the years the JCC has learned many key lessons that have helped support successful inclusion:

  • Complete support from staff, agency leaders, and the community is essential. All must accept a focused vision and philosophy towards inclusion.
  • Sufficient funding is crucial for hiring skilled staff and providing individualized support and accommodations.
  • Staff need to be appropriately trained in what inclusion is and how to achieve it. They must feel confident in their abilities to support those with disabilities.
  • Each individual'sabilities, and what he or she can do, should always be emphasized.
  • Through collaborations with outside groups and agencies, partnerships can be created that allow for more programs and socialization opportunities.

Most importantly, the JCC has learned thateveryonebenefits from inclusion. With the right supports and attitudes, JCC staff believe inclusion is possible anywhere!

Highland Friendship Club

Teenagers and young adults vote "with their feet" when deciding whether or not to attend social and recreational activities. They don't sign-up for activities that don't sound like fun, are full of people older than them, or take place outside their community. This is true of young people with and without disabilities. For that reason, in 2002 the HFC was founded by two St. Paul parents frustrated with the lack of social and recreational opportunities for their teenage sons with disabilities. Volunteer parents developed a monthly Friday night and Saturday afternoon activity schedule for 10 teenagers, which they could attend without assistance from a parent. Today 220 club members participate in 475 HFC-sponsored activities each year.

The teens and young adults who are HFC members are part of the program committee that develops the list of activities offered. The activities give members a chance to connect with their peers in a low-key, well-supervised environment that also offers a typical teenage "hanging out with peers" vibe. The one requirement for all HFC activities is that they must be fun. Activities include art classes, yoga, swimming, choir, dances, bowling, movies, birthday bashes, and cooking meals together (as in the photo of Meghan Rigney and Tanya Hagen to the right). Paid staff coordinate activities, and 12-15 members attend each.

Teenage and young adult program volunteers without disabilities also participate in HFC activities. In 2004, HFC began a partnership with Cretin-Derham Hall (CDH) High School in St. Paul. Now, 50 CDH students organize and attend monthly activities with HFC members each school year. CDH students and other program volunteers live and work in the same community as most HFC members, so they often run into each other. Because they know each other from HFC activities, they can connect with each other like any other friend you meet at the grocery store or movie theatre. These everyday interactions reinforce the HFC member's connection to the community at large.

Friendships that begin and develop through HFC activities continue outside of scheduled activities. For example, 15-year-old Tanya started attending HFC activities in the summer of 2009. By the time her birthday rolled around in 2010, she had developed friendships with several HFC members and invited them to her birthday party. This summer, Tanya plans to start an informal "HFC Twins Fan Club" with fellow fans to meet and watch Minnesota Twins games together. HFC activities help set the stage for developing and sustaining friendships.

All HFC activities are held at various community sites, which provides yet another connection to the greater community for our members and their families. Community partners, including the JCC, CDH, a gallery, a church, and a bowling alley, provide the activity space for a reduced fee or for free. HFC families, board members, and volunteers have all been part of initiating and sustaining these valuable partnerships, and these partnerships are the main reason HFC has been able to increase its activity schedule each year and offer 15 or more activities each week.

Friendships, community, and fun activities are the three key components to HFC's success. Creating an atmosphere in a community space where young people with disabilities enjoy recreational activities with others is a first step in helping them become fully integrated members of their community.


Central to both of these profiles is the idea that recreation participation needs to be freely chosen by individuals. A full range of activity options also needs to be available. And people need to have the appropriate supports and accommodations to enable them to participate fully and successfully. With these principles in mind, recreation environments offer ideal opportunities for connecting people with and without disabilities and for supporting the social and emotional well-being of children and youth with disabilities over time.