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Structuring Recreation and Youth Programs to Facilitate Social Inclusion

by Lynn Anderson and Linda Heyne

"See that man [sic] over there?" "Yes?" Well, I hate him." "But you don't even know him!" "That's why I hate him." – Gordon Allport, On the Nature of Prejudice

People do not automatically or even naturally get to know each other in a group situation unless it is structured to encourage the development of positive interactions. This is especially true if some of the group members are noticeably different than the majority, such as youth with disabilities in a social or recreational setting dominated by peers who do not have disabilities. Coupled with many people's fears of disability, the chances of really getting to know other young people and develop friendships becomes remote in a recreation or youth program setting such as that.

In the 1950s, Gordon Allport developed the contact hypothesis, based on the theory of intergroup relations and social identity. The contact hypothesis provides guidance on how to facilitate positive interactions between group members that lead to improved relationships. The remainder of this article will discuss six principles for structuring group recreation activities (from classrooms to teams to camp groups) for young people based on the contact hypothesis. These principles can help group leaders and other staff set up situations that will foster positive group interaction, social inclusion, and friendship development. These principles will benefit all participants in the activity, not just youth with disabilities.


Provide Frequent and Consistent Opportunities to Get Acquainted

It is essential that group leaders structure recreation activities so participants can get to know each other. By planning activities to have high acquaintance potential, leaders ensure social interactions will occur. When some or all group members are new to the activity, frequent and consistent opportunities to get to know each other become even more important. Suggestions for structuring high acquaintance potential in activities include the following:


Maintain Equal Status

Leaders need to work carefully to structure the recreation activity and situation so each participant has equal status in the group, including the participant with a disability. Equal status reduces negative stereotypes, communicates respect, and is fair. Some ideas for how to structure activities to promote equal status are:


Set Mutual Goals

Goals are an important part of many youth programs, even if the goal is to just have fun. Group leaders have the power to shape how goals are formed, and can improve social interaction by structuring the recreation activity so participants perceive they all share a common goal. Some ideas for structuring mutual goals are:


Support Cooperation and Interdependence

Cooperation is a powerful force in creating relationships between people. Group leaders can structure the recreation activity to promote active cooperation and a feeling that each individual's successes depend on the successes of the other group members. There are many different types of interdependence (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2008):

Among the ways to structure activities to support cooperation and interdependence are these:


Provide Accurate Information About the Person with a Disability

Leaders in youth and recreation programs have a unique opportunity to help change attitudes and misperceptions about disability and ability by virtue of having diverse participants jointly succeeding in activities. Group leaders can structure the recreation activity so that all participants receive information about the participant with a disability that is accurate and that doesn't perpetuate stereotyped beliefs about the disability. Some tips for doing so are:


Create Fair and Tolerant Norms

It is essential that group leaders structure the recreation activity so that the situation favors group equality and fairness. They can do this by creating and reinforcing egalitarian norms that promote fair and caring behavior and tolerance of diversity on the part of the leaders, participants, and spectators. Suggestions leaders can use to structure egalitarian norms include:



Relationships and friendships are critical for social and emotional well-being, and group leaders must not leave social interaction to chance (Anderson & Heyne, in press; Heyne, Schleien, & McAvoy, 1993). Since many people, whether they have a disability or not, develop and sustain relationships through their leisure, it is important to nurture that development during recreational activity. While the suggestions in this article do not necessarily guarantee close social ties will occur, they will help create environments where youth have opportunities to get to know each other, learn each other's strengths, and build lifelong friendships.



Allport, G. (1954). On the nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 265.

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

Heyne, L., Schleien, S., & McAvoy, L. (1993). Making friends: Using recreation activities to promote friendship between children with and without disabilities. Minneapolis: Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Holubec, E. (2008). Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MN: Cooperative Learning Institute and Interaction Book Company.

Lynn Anderson is a Professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies, State University of New York (SUNY), Cortland. She may be reached at or 607/753-4942. Linda Heyne is Associate Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. She may be reached at or 607/274-3050.



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Palmer, S., Heyne, L., Montie, J., Abery, B., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2011). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, 24(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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