Five Extracurricular Activities That Can Benefit Kids With Special Needs

Image of girl with hand covered in fingerpaints

With back to school season on the horizon, many parents are busily scheduling their children’s extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars like sports, performing and fine arts classes, computer clubs and youth groups can do wonders for children’s self-esteem, social lives and skills development. Children with special needs can benefit from activities geared toward their strengths, talents and interests. Increasingly, recreational, arts-based and socialization programs adapted for children with disabilities, are cropping up across the country. Here is a sampling of some of the newest and most innovative extracurricular activities we’ve come across. While the programs mentioned here are not necessarily in your neck of the woods, most likely, you will find similar programs in your own community.

1. Adapted Dance

More and more cities are now offering adaptive dance classes for people with disabilities. Ballet for All Kids, with studios in New York City and Los Angeles offers classical ballet instruction for children with mobility challenges, autism spectrum disorders, blindness, deafness and ADHD using the Schlachte Method, developed by Bonnie Schlachte the program’s founder.

The Music in Motion program, part of the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring, Maryland offers two classes for children with disabilities, one for children who are able to walk and another for children who use wheelchairs and walkers.

According to Disability World, “the physical benefits of wheelchair dancing include the maintenance of physical balance, flexibility, range of motion, coordination and improved respiratory control. The psychological effects of ballroom dancing are social interaction and the development of relationships.”

2. Skateboarding

In recent years, nonprofit organizations such as SkateMD based in Sacramento, California, The A.skate Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama and Get on Board in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have raised awareness about the value of skateboarding for children with autism and physical disabilities. Jay Mandarino, founder of the C.J. Skateboard Park and School in Ontario, Canada, first discovered skateboarding’s therapeutic advantages when he was growing up. Mandarino who struggled with depression, anxiety, dyslexia and ADHD found refuge from his troubles in skateboarding. The sport helped him make friends, become physically fit and gave him self-confidence. Now, the park and school he founded offers individualized lessons for children with disabilities including deafness, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome.

3. Adaptive Painting

Growing up with a foster brother with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair inspired Dwayne Szot to found Zot Artz, Arts for All, a nonprofit based in Kalamazoo, Michigan that provides “services, programs, art tools and supplies that allow individuals with different levels of abilities to creatively express themselves.” One of Szot’s most amazing creations is the painting wheelchair. Click here, to check it out. Somehow, we think that Szot and Enabling Device’s founder, Steven Kanor would have really hit it off!

Simply ArtAble, a studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers classes, parties, special events and drop-in painting classes for people with all types of challenges, including physical disabilities, cognitive and developmental disorders, and mental illness. “The studio is completely wheelchair accessible, including automatic doors, ramps, and adjustable tables that accommodate large, motorized wheelchairs. A quiet area in the back of the studio offers calm for those who get overwhelmed with noise or lots of people.”

4. Musical theater

Musical theater classes and productions are a wonderful way for children with disabilities and interpersonal challenges to blossom. The Los Angeles-based Miracle Project puts children with autism and other special needs together for 22 weeks and culminates in a full-length performance. Similar programming, inspired by the Miracle Project, is offered by Actionplay in New York City.

Beginning next month, the Wolf Performing Arts Center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania will launch its first-ever Quilt class. Quilt is “a multi-faceted program with both educational and performance opportunities that meets each child where they are.”

Special Gifts Theater in Northbrook, Illinois also offers classes and performance opportunities for children with special needs. According to the program’s website “Theatre arts provides an excellent opportunity for enhancing an individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence; encouraging problem-solving abilities; strengthening listening, focusing, and attention skills; improving communication and fostering cooperation.”

5. Hippotherapy

Horseback riding is both fun and therapeutic. According to the American Hippotherapy Association, “Hippotherapy may have positive effects on a patient’s posture, muscle tone, and balance. The movement of the horse engages muscles used for walking and encourages postural responses which can help to improve trunk control, core strength, motor planning, sensory processing and respiratory function for speech production.”

At Rocking Horse Rehab in Orange, New Jersey, occupational, speech/language and physical therapists use hippotherapy and developmental riding to help children with a variety of disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, neuro-musculoskeletal disorders, traumatic brain injuries and sensory processing disorders.

To find a hippotherapy facility near you, visit the American Hippotherapy Inc. Association’s website.

Nine Tips to Create a Playgroup

Cartoon of children's playgroup

Being the parent of a special needs child can be isolating.  So many activities are off limits due to accessibility concerns, behavioral problems and communication challenges. It’s hard enough coping with your own loneliness, but knowing your child struggles to make friends is heartbreaking for most parents.  One way to break down barriers and find social opportunities for you and your child is by hosting an inclusive playgroup where children with special needs and typically developing children play together. Children with special needs may benefit from observing typically developing peers, and those without developmental challenges will learn from and come to appreciate their peers with special needs.

We’ve put together some guidelines for making playgroups successful.

1.  Organize playgroups around developmental age

If your child has a disability, she may not be functioning at the same level as typically developing children of her own age. Your child may have more success playing with children who match her developmental, not her chronological age.

2.  Keep it small

Children with special needs can be easily over-stimulated and overwhelmed so it’s wise to limit the number of children in the playgroup to no more than four or five.

3.  Be consistent

Children with special needs often have trouble adapting to change. So keep group norms as consistent as possible. Don’t invite guests without warning your child first, and try keeping the playgroup’s schedule regular. It’s also worthwhile to come up with some ground rules regarding behavior expectations for all group members. Unless rules are clear, conflicts between children and parents can sabotage relationships and the longevity of the group.

4.  Prepare a couple of simple activities

Children with developmental disabilities such as autism may be challenged when it comes to reciprocal, spontaneous and imaginative play. If that’s the case for your child, prepare a few activities that you know your child and the other children in the group are likely to enjoy. Crafts projects play dough, or sing-alongs work well with most children.

5.  Have snacks

Provide healthy but child-friendly snacks. Since some children may have dietary restrictions be sure to discuss options with parents beforehand. Better yet, ask parents to bring their own snacks if they have concerns about what’s being served.

6.  Safety First
Make sure the designated playgroup area is free of breakable objects, sharp edges or uncarpeted surfaces. If children are under 3 years old or have oral sensory processing issues, be careful not to put out toys with small pieces that can be choking hazards. If you have the space, consider creating an indoor gymnasium with soft play products.  Ball pits, soft play blocks, tunnel climbers and patchwork floormats get kids moving, and having fun for hours.

7.  Be patient

If your child’s disability affects his social skills, don’t expect friendships to develop overnight. Focus on making sure that everyone has fun and feels comfortable so that parents and children want to meet again. In time, you may be surprised of the relationships that form.

8.  Keep it short and sweet

A playgroup that lasts more than two hours is flirting with disaster. Regardless of their developmental age, most young children become over-stimulated, tired and irritable after a certain point.

9.  Playgroups in the community

If you aren’t up to creating your own playgroup, don’t give up on the idea. Plenty of community organizations including Lekotek, Where I Can Be Me, and your local YMCA or JCC offer playgroups that are staffed by professionals. Meetups are another great source for connecting with other families with special needs children.


Yoga For All

Yoga graphic

There’s no denying that the Eastern practice of yoga has taken the West by storm. Depending upon where you live, you might find a yoga studio on every other corner. Many studios now offer yoga classes for children and adults with a variety of special needs. We’ve compiled some information about yoga, its many benefits, as well as some resources so that you and your child can access the practice.

What is yoga?   

While there are many types of yoga, Hatha yoga is most widely practiced in the U.S. According to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPD) Hatha Yoga “emphasizes body-mind wellness through postures or asanas which tone and strengthen our muscles and increase our flexibility.” And good news—regardless of the degree of physical, developmental and/or cognitive disability, almost everyone can benefit from the 5,000-year-old practice.

Book cover for "Yoga for the Special Child"Just ask Matthew Sanford.Sanford, an author, yoga instructor, inspirational speaker and founder of the nonprofit, Mind/Body Solutions, was paralyzed from the chest down after an automobile accident at age 13. He discovered yoga 12 years later and the practice was life changing for him. Nowadays, Sanford helps people with and without disabilities to experience the transformative effects of yoga.

What are the benefits of yoga for those with physical disabilities?   

Many! According to Sanford, yoga practitioners can expect to enjoy “increased strength, balance, mental and physical flexibility, improvements in the quality of their breathing, a sense of lightness and freedom within their bodies, an increased ability to manage stress, a deepened sense of wholeness and connection with others and the discovery of a subtle level of mind-body sensation that is not impeded by disability.”

Book cover for "Asanas for Autism and Special Needs"What are the benefits of yoga for children and adults with autism?   

Scott Anderson, founder of Yogautism, teaches a specially designed yoga program for people with autism spectrum disorders. Anderson has found that in time, practitioners on the autism spectrum not only become stronger and more agile, but are also likely to benefit from a reduction in ASD symptoms such as pain, aggression, anxiety and obsessive and self-stimulatory behaviors. Additionally, says Anderson, many of his students develop an increased ability to regulate their emotions.

Does yoga have special benefits for children and adults with Down syndrome?

Yes! Yoga poses strengthen the low muscle tone common to those with Down syndrome while the breath work fundamental to yoga may improve heart and lung function countering pulmonary hypertension. Poses such as twists and abdominal exercises are believed to benefit digestion and bridge poses and shoulder stands may improve thyroid function.

Where can I find a class, practitioner or more information about yoga?

Yoga Programs:


Play Ball!

Miracle League Logo

If it’s springtime it must be baseball season! For baseball-lovers young and old, a trip to the ballpark is one of the great joys of spring —especially when the home team wins! For young [and young at heart] baseball fans, playing the game can be equally joyful. According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, “participation in sports by children and adolescents is associated with a range of documented physical, emotional, social, educational and other benefits that can last into adulthood.”

But, all too often, youngsters with disabilities are left on the sidelines.

In recent years, a movement to make sports more inclusive has gained traction. Yet, despite good intentions, and modifications to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2010, many recreational facilities, including ball fields, still don’t accommodate children with mobility challenges, visual impairment and other disabilities. Even when settings are completely accessible, children with disabilities may remain isolated because of the fears and misconceptions of typically developing peers. Fortunately, an organization called The Miracle League is changing that, one community at a time.

It all started one day at the end of Little League season in Conyers, Georgia in Rockville County, recalls The Miracle League’s national program director, Stephanie Davis.

Photo of child in wheelchair hitting a baseball“There was a little boy on the community’s little league team who had a brother who was in a wheelchair. The brother came to every single game and every single practice his brother played in, watching and cheering him on.”

One day, says Davis, the coach invited the team’s most loyal fan on to the field to play. Soon after, it was announced that a new league for children with disabilities was being organized for the following year. The next season, 35 children were signed up and ready to play.

In most ways, says Davis, the league operated in the same way as traditional little leagues. The teams played for six to eight weeks in the fall and spring, wore uniforms, made plays and rounded the bases. In other ways it was different. Rules were adjusted to ensure that every player got plenty of game-time, players were always safe on base and everyone was considered a winner in every game. Each player was assigned a buddy— a middle school, high school or adult volunteer— who would help him or her during the game.

Photo of child with walker and "buddy" playing baseballIn spite of all the fun, there was still a problem. The baseball field wasn’t accessible to children with walkers, canes or wheelchairs, and team members, many of whom were medically fragile, faced risk of injury. Enter: Dean Alford and his sister, Diane Alford, the program’s current executive director and cofounder.

“Dean [now The Miracle League’s chairman] came up with the idea of building a fully accessible field,” says Davis.

Recognizing that the project would be very expensive, Alford went to his fellow rotary club members and convinced them to spearhead the fundraising effort. The Rockville Rotary Club was joined by the neighboring Conyers Rotary Club and together, they formed the Rotary Miracle Fund, Inc., a 510(C)3 with two objectives:

“To raise funds to build an entirely accessible complex for Miracle League players, and to assist other communities to build accessible complexes in their communities.”

The first Miracle League complex, completed in 2002, was built with a cushioned rubberized surface that is completely flat to accommodate wheelchairs and to ensure the safety of visually impaired players. There are wheelchair accessible dugouts and bathrooms, a concession stand and a designated picnic area.

Photo of child in wheelchair at batThanks to media coverage and word of mouth, news of The Miracle League and its new complex spread. Other communities wanted accessible baseball fields and complexes too. Today, Miracle Leagues exist in 270 communities and Miracle League accessible ball fields have been built in more than 150 communities.

“The Miracle League’s main program is just for fun,” says Davis. “Everyone plays together. But we also have a more competitive league for kids [and adults] who become really good baseball players.”

The League includes players with a variety of disabilities, says Davis. “We have players with everything from ADHD, sensory disorders and autism to Down Syndrome, visual impairment and cerebral palsy to children who are paralyzed and non-verbal.”

Though the program was originally created for children, it has evolved to include some adults.

“We had a 35-year-old walk on the field for the first time. Although he was 35, he was functioning at the level of a young child. He had never played baseball before. How could we say, “no,” asks Davis, who adds that some leagues, such as one in New York, is large enough to accommodate separate teams for children and adult players.

The Buddy Program is one of the best parts of The Miracle League, Davis says. All of the players are paired with typically developing middle school students, high school students, and adults.

“This is not a therapeutic program,” she says. “We like to keep everything normal. It’s just baseball. The ‘buddies’ do watch safety videos and we like to have them meet up with parents before the season starts. The parents are the experts. The ‘buddies’ does whatever the child needs—wheels him around the bases, helps her grab the ball if she can’t reach it. Once they do it once, they get it,” says Davis.

“The program really changes family life,” Davis continues. “The children feel like they’re part of a group. Instead of being segregated, they are being invited to birthday parties, and to sit at the lunch table at school. Through the program, the buddies learn that the kids with disabilities aren’t really so different than they are. They get to know each other and they become friends.”

Interested in having a Miracle League program and an accessible ballpark in your community? Davis says the organization “handles everything from A to Z. No community is too small,” she adds. “We provide all the tools communities need to fundraise and we connect donors to communities.”

For more information, visit


The Play’s the Thing

Girl and boy at a wheelchair-accessible playground

There’s something about the spring … Everywhere you look, people are smiling, doors are flung open, coats are abandoned, neighbors are chatting and playgrounds are teeming with children.

“The playground is a child’s classroom,” says Shane’s Inspiration, a California-based organization whose mission is “creating social inclusion for children with disabilities through the vehicle of inclusive playgrounds and programs.”
Shane’s Inspiration is one of many organizations to recognize the benefits of inclusive or integrated play, both for children with disabilities and their typically developing peers.

Through playgrounds, say the folks at Shane’s Inspiration, children “learn to negotiate while waiting in line for the slide. They learn to communicate by playing pirates on the bridge. Most importantly—they learn to trust themselves and others by interacting physically, emotionally and socially with their peers.”

Yet, accessing playgrounds that fully meet their needs isn’t a given for children with disabilities.

According to Easter Seals, a 97- year-old nonprofit that assists more than one million individuals with all types of disabilities and their families each year,
“Even with civil rights legislation prohibiting it, people with disabilities are regularly excluded from typical recreation opportunities.”

The problem? The ADA standards for accessible design of recreation facilities adopted in 2010 and enacted in 2012 just didn’t go far enough.

For example, though wheelchair-bound children may now be able to wheel themselves onto an ADA-compliant playground, once they arrive, there may be few pieces of equipment they can use.

Likewise, children who are blind will get little benefit from an ADA-compliant playground that doesn’t include tactile elements or braille signs to help them with mobilization and orientation.

If playgrounds are not fully inclusive, they are unlikely to promote meaningful interactions with able-bodied peers who are making full use of their surroundings. And that’s a loss for everyone.

Fortunately, things are slowly changing. As more and more charitable organizations and parents of children with and without disabilities advocate for the creation of inclusive or universally designed play environments, the playgrounds are becoming more prevalent in public and private settings across the country.

“Easter Seals has endorsed universal design as a proactive approach to facility design that is more inclusive. It goes beyond the ADA and promotes the social integration of children with disabilities early in their lives,” the organization says on its website.

Lisa Smacchia is acting director at Easter Seals’ Project Explore, Project Inspire and Project Imagine. She says that the universally designed playground, at Project Explore in Valhalla, N.Y.—the first of its kind in the New York’s Hudson Valley Region and donated by Entergy—features smooth ground surfaces, multiple levels that can be accessed with ramps and therapeutic swings and slides. These elements “make it possible for children with special needs as well as their typically developing peers to integrate and play together with ease,” says Smacchia.

Not surprisingly, inclusive playgrounds are far more costly than traditional playgrounds. But, as many have discovered, fundraising is effective and the paybacks are huge! For suggestions on how to finance an inclusive playground in your community, visit

For a list of some of the best accessible playgrounds in the U.S., visit

Enabling Devices wishes you and yours a playful spring!