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Everyone plays! Increasing participation of special needs children.


This article identifies specific strategies for increasing participation of children with disabilities in physical education classes or in active playground or game settings.


Kickball, softball, and relay races are all games most adults remember playing in physical education class in elementary school. What about those adults who grew up having special needs or disabilities? Do they have memories of playing those games during their elementary school years? Are today's classroom teachers and physical educators doing enough to increase participation and inclusion in their classes? This article offers elementary classroom teachers and physical educators strategies for increasing participation and enhancing inclusion of special needs students in physical education games.

In the early 1970's, Annemarie was a fifth grade student who enjoyed physical play experiences like most elementary school children. She could be frequently seen sitting on the sidelines quietly keeping score during kickball games in gym class with her fellow fifth graders. She would patiently watch the game and at times not pay close attention to the action and players in the field. The teacher would tell the class that the game about to be played was not safe for Annemarie, so she was asked to be the special scorekeeper for the game. At times, Annemarie did participate in class softball games. She would eagerly stand at the plate, holding the bat confidently, hit the ball easily, and another student would be selected to "pinch run" for her around the bases. During those weekly physical education classes, Annemarie was a sporadic participant during the entire school year. Annemarie was the only "special needs" child in her class. She was born with muscular dystrophy and had endured many surgeries during her elementary school years to improve her walking and running abilities. How much fun did Annemarie have keeping score and watching other children run around the bases for her? In cases like Annemarie's, children with disabilities have opportunities to participate in recreation programs, intramural sports programs, and other special sports programs, but most children desire to play in "regular" physical education classes or sports leagues with a variety of individuals. How can teachers increase the level of participation and enhance inclusion?

Federal Legislation

Prior to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, little or no adaptations were made for disabled children in physical education classes. This act led to the development of the term, mainstreaming when described the desegregation of disabled children from their non-disabled peers. Adaptive physical education classes emerged for disabled children. Adaptations involving equipment, game rules, reduced class sizes, and instructional support were a major part of adaptive physical education classes (Rizzo & Lavay, 1995).

In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) became a law. IDEA made significant changes to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. With this law, the term inclusion replaced mainstreaming as the key term among special educators and parents of children with disabilities (Modell & Megginson, 2001). IDEA required equal opportunity for participation in all aspects of education and life experiences. Providing disabled students with a variety of opportunities that will help them to acquire skills and abilities that will increase their level of participation and will enable them to build social skills was a major goal of IDEA (Block, 1995).

Both of these laws greatly influenced and increased the educational and social opportunities of disabled children. Schools adopted adaptive physical education programs and readily increased the level of inclusion of disabled students at all levels in physical activity. In some cases, students with varying disabilities are being placed in physical education classes or in regular classroom settings without appropriate adaptations or accommodations being made. It is an inappropriate and illegal practice to place a disabled student in a regular physical education class or in any class without making appropriate adaptations or accommodations when they are needed (Rizzo & Lavay, 2000). How can physical educators and classroom teachers effectively make modifications to increase the level of involvement of disabled students in physical education activities?

Strategies for Increasing Participation

Thoughtful planning and sensitivity to special needs is vital to designing and teaching physical activities for all children. Many classroom teachers and physical educators use inappropriate practices when playing games and activities with their students. Most of them are unaware of the inappropriateness of these strategies. Many use strategies for grouping and team selection that they experienced themselves in elementary school. It is important to analyze strategies and plan for a variety of situations in order to make play experiences more meaningful and fun for all students.

When developing physical education games and active playground experiences for students who may have special challenges, it is important to consider the following practices:

* Be aware of situations that may socially devalue the child. Avoid having children select players for their own teams. This sends a negative message to children who are selected last by their peers.

* Avoid using elimination games. Lesser skilled children will most likely be eliminated early in a game and will ultimately spend more time sitting on the sidelines without participating in the action. Encourage integration not segregation.

* Offer a variety of individual, partner, and group activities. Using a blend of grouping strategies will be helpful in building cooperative skills and can encourage peer acceptance.

* Avoid using disabled children as umpires, judges, scorekeepers, or referees. While this idea gives a child a chance to be involved with learning the scoring and rules of a game, it does little to increase their level of active participation and interaction with other students. In addition, it sets the child apart from his/her peers.

* Provide frequent assistance and keep all children active during the play experience. Encourage peer assistance when necessary.

* Use frequent positive and corrective feedback with all children. Focus on what the child can do and not on the disability.

* Include a variety of activities that are designed to provide practice for the fundamental motor skills and that will foster physical fitness qualifies (Pangrazi, 1998, p. 138).

Final Thoughts

The recommended strategies are suggestions to help elementary classroom teachers and physical educators examine their own classroom practices and heighten their awareness of creating an equitable play environment for all children. Teachers must select strategies that will increase the level of involvement for all students. Selecting physical activities that are most appropriate for the students, the setting, and the teacher must be the goal of teachers at all grade levels.

Working to increase and enhance the level of active involvement of special needs children must be considered when planning all physical activities all of the time. Involvement on an intermittent basis does little to encourage equity for all children. One might wonder how different Annemarie's memories of physical education class would be if the teacher had consistently created play experiences that actively included her during every game and activity.


Block, M.E. (1995). Americans with disabilities act: Its impact on youth sports. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 66 (1) 28-32.

Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142.

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act Amendments of 1997, Public Law 105-17.

Modell, S.J. & Megginson, N.L. (2001). Life after school: A Transition model for adapted physical educators. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 72 (2), 45-48.

Pangrazi, R.P. (1998). Dynamic physical education for elementary school children (12th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Rizzo, T.L. & Lavay, B. (2000). Inclusion: Why the confusion? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 71 (4), 32-36.

Kowalczyk is an instructor of science and physical education methodology.
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Article Details
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Author:Kowalczyk, Donna L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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