Ideas for Encouraging Children's Friendships Through Recreation
By Linda A. Heyne, Stuart J. Schleien, and Leo H. McAvoy
Families, school personnel, and community recreation staff all play a role
in encouraging the growth of friendships between children with and without disabilities.
The following recommendations from members of all three groups address some
of the ways that friendships can be promoted through recreation activities in
homes, neighborhoods, schools, and community recreation programs.
What Families Can Do
Families can take many positive steps to influence friendship building between
children with and without disabilities through recreation activities. Recognizing
that friendships for their children will generally not occur by themselves,
parents recommend to other families the following approaches for encouraging
Make friendship development a family priority. If friendships
are to develop and thrive for children, parents must make friendship development
a family priority. Given the many demands on a family’s time, the only
way that friendships for children can be given the attention they deserve
is to rank friendship development as one of the family’s foremost values.
Become acquainted with other families. To identify neighborhood
peers who can potentially be friends with their children, parents must become
acquainted with other families in their neighborhoods. An ideal way to get
to know other families is to meet them through school functions and at community
Schedule children’s times together. If children’s
friendships are to grow, children need frequent and ongoing opportunities
to play together and interact. Parents must play an active role in making
certain these opportunities take place. For example, families can request
each other’s phone numbers and addresses. Also, parents can take the
initiative to call other parents or teach their children to use the telephone
to arrange times for friends to see each other.
Invite children into homes and on outings. As children
themselves have told us, an indication that classmates have become friends
is that they play together outside of school. Children might stop off at a
friend’s house after school, be invited to a birthday party, ride bikes
together on the weekend, go to a movie, or simply “hang out” together
in the neighborhood. Parents can take an active role in suggesting these or
similar activities to their children and in making arrangements for their
friends to join them. Or, if children themselves ask to play with a friend,
parents can respond by making arrangements for the activity.
Learn about individual needs of children. To feel comfortable
assuming responsibility for children with special needs in their homes, parents
of nondisabled children need to learn about the individual needs of friends
with disabilities and how to meet them. For example, more information may
be required about mobility, communication, managing inappropriate behaviors,
or personal care needs. Discussing these needs with a parent of a child with
a disability – or if a parent grants permission, a school teacher –
can help assuage questions and fears, and open up new opportunities for informal
play between children with and without disabilities.
Discuss children’s friendships at home. Parents can
support their children’s relationships by discussing them at home. Parents
can talk with their children about what it means to be a friend and have one.
They can ask their children questions related to a particular friend. Or they
can find out if there are any classmates in school or peers in the neighborhood
that their children might like to get to know better.
Encourage positive social interactions. To facilitate friendships
between children with and without disabilities when they visit in homes, parents
must learn some basic techniques to encourage positive communication and interaction
between the children. Techniques developed in the area of inclusive recreation,
such as arranging for cooperative play and teaching friendship skills, can
be extremely valuable for parents who attempt to facilitate home play for
Learn about community recreation resources. As a means
of seeking opportunities for children with and without disabilities to share
experiences, families can explore neighborhood recreation resources, such
as neighborhood parks, recreation centers, nature centers, and shopping malls,
as well as organized leisure programs through organizations such as YMCA/YWCAs,
scouting, and Jewish Community Centers. Children with and without disabilities
might enroll in an activity class together, take part in a community event,
play at a playground, or shop together. Through building a shared history
of experiences in the community, the bonds of friendship can be strengthened.
What School Staff Can Do
Along with families, school personnel can play an important part in encouraging
friendships between students with and without disabilities. Here are recommendations
that have been offered for facilitating and supporting friendships through recreation
activities during the school day:
Include social and recreation skills in curricula. Providing
opportunities for students to learn social interaction and recreation skills
along with academics can help students to gain self-confidence, learn how
to get along with and respect others, build enduring relationships and friendships,
assume responsibility, solve problems, and make decisions. These goals can
be achieved by involving children with and without disabilities in small group,
cooperative activities at regular periods throughout the school week. Within
these groups children can be taught, and be given frequent opportunities to
practice such skills as greeting each other, listening to each other respectfully,
taking turns, initiating and engaging in conversations, brainstorming ideas,
expressing opinions, and solving problems when they arise.
Assign friends to the same classroom. Children tend to
make friends with other children who are in their same classroom. If friends
who were in the same class one year are not assigned to the same class the
following year, they will have fewer opportunities to spend time together
and, as a result, their friendship might not continue. Teachers can pay special
attention to friendships that develop between children with and without disabilities,
make arrangements so those children can be in the same classrooms from year
to year, and support those friendships by arranging times for children to
play and work together on a regular basis.
Provide opportunities for families to become acquainted.
If children with varying abilities are to become friends, their parents need
to have opportunities to meet each other, become acquainted, and mutually
support the relationships. Schools can serve as common, non-threatening bases
for parents to get to know each other. Schools can provide these opportunities
by sponsoring school open houses, potluck dinners, open swim or gym times,
family nights, community education classes, PTA meetings, and family focus
Include friendship and recreation goals in the IEPs. Every
child who receives special education services has an Individualized Education
Plan (IEP) that is reviewed annually. Recreation has been identified in several
federal laws as a “related service” that parents can request to
be included on the IEP. Including recreation, friendship, or social interaction
goals and objectives on an IEP will ensure that the skills related to these
goals will be taught, monitored, and evaluated regularly.
Train school personnel on children’s friendships.
Teachers and other school staff whose training may have emphasized academic
skills may need supplementary training in the importance of teaching social
interaction, friendship, and recreation skills, and in techniques to support
and maintain children’s relationships and friendships.
Offer disability awareness training to parents and nondisabled children.
In order to eliminate stereotypes about individuals with disabilities, children
and parents need to receive accurate information about disabilities and individuals
who have them. Schools can sponsor educational sessions about people with
disabilities, presenting information through puppetry, testimonials by individuals
with disabilities and/or their parents, books, pictures, and displays of specialized
equipment such as hearing aids, braces, or communication devices. Local chapters
of advocacy organizations, such as Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, or the Epilepsy
Foundation can also be used as resources for information about people with
Tell parents when friendships develop. Because parents
rarely have opportunities to observe their children during the school day,
they may have no idea that their children have friends at school. Lack of
knowledge about their children’s friendships can contribute to parents
believing that their children cannot make friends. When teachers inform parents
of budding relationships between children with and without disabilities, parents
learn that such relationships are possible for their children, and can then
take an active role in nurturing them.
What Community Recreation Staff Can Do
Community recreation personnel can create many ideal opportunities for children
with and without disabilities to meet, get to know each other, and become friends
through participation in a variety of recreation activities. Community recreation
agencies, which already include individuals with varying abilities in their
regular recreation programming, have offered us the following recommendations
for ensuring inclusive recreation that encourages the development of children’s
Welcome all children in recreation programs. Community
recreation staff can develop mission statements that explicitly state an agency’s
intention and ability to serve persons with varying abilities. Brochures and
news releases that advertise programs should invite participation by individuals
with disabilities, and clearly indicate who to contact if an individual needs
accommodations in order to participate in a program. In this way, an agency
can make a public statement that individuals with disabilities are welcome
and will be served inclusively.
Ensure architectural accessibility. Community recreation
staff should be certain that their facilities, parking lots, and playgrounds
are physically accessible for individuals with disabilities. For example,
ramps, elevators, curb cuts, reserved parking spots, and accessible drinking
fountains and rest rooms should all be in place and operative to accommodate
individuals who need them.
Ensure program accessibility. Participants who register
for community recreation programs need assurance that their special needs
can be met in those programs. Community recreation agencies need to be prepared
to meet individual needs by adapting activities or equipment, providing one-to-one
assistance, educating nondisabled participants about disabilities, and managing
Educate staff to meet individual needs. If program leaders
lack knowledge and experience in working with individuals with disabilities,
they may feel reluctant or unqualified to serve them. Agencies should take
responsibility to educate their staff in disability issues and up-to-date
strategies for including participants with disabilities in recreation programs.
Through education and experiences, recreation staff can change their attitudes
about inclusion, and gain confidence and expertise in meeting participants’
Provide cooperative activities that promote positive peer interactions.
Community recreation staff may need to re-evaluate their programs to ensure
that inclusive activities can become a reality. They might ask themselves:
Can all participants be involved in programs to their full potential? do programs
emphasize competition and individual achievement at the expense of cooperation,
social interaction, group learning goals, and relationship building and friendship?
Providing opportunities for children to play together in cooperative groups
reinforces inclusion, socialization, interdependence, and an awareness and
appreciation of others.
Coordinate after-school activities and school schedules.
Because of a shortage of school buses or funds to pay drivers, in many communities
bus drivers need to stop at more than one school to drive children home. Consequently,
school days may end at various times within one community. Because of this
situation, community recreation staff should pay close attention to school
dismissal times and coordinate schedules for after-school programs so that
children with and without disabilities can attend them.
For children with and without disabilities to become friends, they must have
opportunities to be together as peers in recreation activities. Parents, school
personnel, and community recreation staff all play an essential role in creating
and shaping these opportunities.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from “How to Encourage Friendships:
Strategies for Use in Home, School and Community”, in Heyne, L.A., Schleien,
S. J. & McAvoy, L H. (1996). Making Friends: Using Recreation Activities
to Promote Friendship Between Children With and Without Disabilities, published
by the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. Linda Heyne
is currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Therapeutic
Recreation and Leisure Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Stuart J.
Schleien is Professor and Department Head with the Depart-ment of Recreation,
Parks, and Tourism, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Leo McAvoy is
Professor and Head with the Division of Recreation and Sport Studies, University
of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Citation: Gaylord, V., Lieberman, L., Abery, B. & Lais, G. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities, 16(2) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/162.