4 Ways to Build Inclusive Sports and Recreation Programs for Children with Disabilities

Learn how to create programs that prioritize inclusion, celebrate diversity, and promote the well-being of all participants.

The importance for all children to be able to fully participate in sports and recreational activities cannot be overstated. Aside from promoting physical and emotional well-being, these experiences teach children essential life skills such as learning how to be part of a team, establishing friendships, developing self-confidence, and simply taking part in the joy of play.

According to this 2021 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the reality is that children with disabilities are more restricted in their participation and tend to have lower levels of fitness than their peers without disabilities.

As inclusion advocates, we don’t want to see any child held back or excluded from opportunities that can help them reach their full potential. It’s crucial for programs, families, schools, and communities to provide all children every chance to live full, healthy, and active lives.

It’s not enough to simply “accommodate” children with disabilities in existing programs; the goal should be to create inclusive programs that welcome all children to participate.

We’ll examine four key components for setting up inclusive sports and recreational programs for children with disabilities and highlight resources that camp and program leaders can count on to help lower barriers to sports participation.

A photo from the shoulders down of a child bouncing a basketball.

1. Provide Inclusion Training for Coaches, Volunteers, and Staff 

The work of putting inclusion into action is everyone’s responsibility. That’s why providing training is crucial to lay the groundwork for inclusive sports and recreation programs. 

Research indicates that inclusion training boosts the confidence of program staff, enabling them to better support children with disabilities. By ensuring that coaches, volunteers, and staff are equipped with the right inclusion training, they can effectively adapt the sporting activities they lead and create an environment where all participants can thrive. 

Here are some ways to ensure everyone involved in your programs is adequately prepared for and trained in inclusive practices:

  • Offer training sessions and workshops on disability awareness with a focus on how to create inclusive environments and programs that meet the needs of children with disabilities. You can start with the KIT I Can Be Inclusive Series, a 5-course series that offers program staff and volunteers the basics about disability inclusion that every youth development professional should be familiar with.
  • Provide resources such as handbooks, manuals, and online materials that explain how to work with children with disabilities, how to adapt programs and activities to meet their needs, and how to provide support and assistance when needed. Need help finding these resources? Check out the KIT Inclusion Resource page and find free downloadables, tip sheets, and more!
  • Invite guest speakers or disability advocates to speak with coaches, volunteers, and staff to provide real-life perspectives on the benefits of inclusion in sports and recreation. You can take advantage of our expert speakers and book a KIT Speaking Engagement for your programs.
  • Encourage coaches, volunteers, and staff to participate in disability-related conferences, seminars, and other events to gain a better understanding of disability issues and learn about best practices in inclusion.
  • Offer ongoing professional development and support to ensure that coaches, volunteers, and staff are up-to-date with the latest research related to disability inclusion in sports and recreation.
  • Provide opportunities for coaches, volunteers, and staff to collaborate and share best practices, ideas, and challenges related to including kids with disabilities. This can be done through meetings, online forums, or other channels. These sessions can also include parents, families, and caregivers.

If you’d like to get more tips and insights on the importance of inclusion training for programs, check out our recent blog Inclusion Training: Why Is It Critical?


2. Implement Accessible Activities, Facilities, and Equipment

Accessibility and adaptability are cornerstones of inclusive programs. Without it, children with disabilities struggle to participate and feel excluded, impacting their confidence and willingness to engage in sports or recreational activities.

This issue arises from a lack of proactive efforts, misconceptions held by parents, and uncertainty among educators and administrators on how to create accessible environments, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

To overcome these challenges, the key is to begin with small, manageable changes. Implementing easy-to-adopt ideas and resources will lay the foundation for an inclusive and accessible program for all children:

  • Conduct a needs assessment to determine accessibility requirements of the children with disabilities who will be participating in your program. This can include identifying any physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities that may require specific accommodations. Once these needs are identified, you can start making your program more accessible, step by step. Regularly review and evaluate the accessibility of your program, facilities, and equipment, and make modifications as needed to ensure that they continue to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
  • Collaborate with disability organizations, experts, or consultants to adopt best practices for accessibility in sports and recreation for children with disabilities. As leaders of disability inclusion training and behavior support, KIT teaches over 20,000 learners a year, conducting training programs in 220 locations domestically and 49 internationally. KIT is simultaneously driving the national conversation on inclusion for child and youth programs while teaching inclusive practices on an international scale. KIT offers customized solutions through our Training and Support Packages. These tailored packages address the unique needs of your organization and may include coaching from our Inclusion Support Center to ensure that your staff and participants benefit from an inclusive and accessible program.
  • Train coaches, volunteers, and staff on how to provide engaging support and assistance to children with disabilities during activities, including how to assist with mobility, communication, and other needs. Enroll in this KIT online course, Exciting Ways to Engage Youth, and learn ways in which you can reshape activities, staff interactions, and program space to cultivate more youth engagement.
  • Ensure that all activities can be easily adapted to meet the needs of children with disabilities. This may involve modifying rules or equipment to make them more accessible or developing alternative activities that can be done by children with a range of abilities.
  • Collaborate with parents, families, and caregivers. From the planning process all the way through to implementation, ensure that you provide opportunities for feedback from those who are directly involved in the care of children with disabilities.


3. Foster a Culture of Inclusion

Culture, by nature, is something that can’t be touched or seen. This holds true for an inclusive culture, as well. We can experience an inclusive culture through deliberate actions, the words we choose, and, most importantly, by demonstrating inclusive behaviors ourselves. 

When a sports or recreation program truly embraces inclusion, children and their families can instantly sense the warm, welcoming atmosphere and recognize that the program values respect, understanding, uniqueness, and acceptance.

Here are some strategies and resources that you can use to foster an inclusive culture:

  • Use language and imagery that is inclusive and respectful of all cultures and identities. You can start by spending some time looking at your program brochures and materials, the pictures on the walls, the people represented in books and other program materials, and how staff approach the youth in their care. Then, answer the questions in this KIT Tip Sheet: Communicating Your Commitment to Inclusion.
  • To ensure inclusivity, adjust program activities and make them adaptable to cater to various skill levels. For instance, in a basketball program, you can offer several game variations to make it more accessible for all children. Lowering the height of the hoop is one way to do this. Alternatively, you can explore other options such as introducing “sitting basketball” or “para-basketball” to cater to children with mobility limitations. By providing a range of options, all children can participate in activities, feel confident, and experience a sense of belonging.
  • Communicate with families, parents, and caregivers. Asking clear, inclusion-driven questions can provide valuable insights into the strengths and needs of each child, allowing you to tailor your approach to their unique circumstances. It’s important to be sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences and to make an effort to understand the families’ perspectives. By asking respectful and non-judgmental questions, you can create opportunities for families to share their stories and insights. To get started, check out the KIT Microlearning Video 5 Questions to Ask Families and its accompanying Tip Sheet, which offers guidance on how to approach these conversations.
  • Create a culture where children feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences and where they are celebrated for their differences. When children feel accepted and valued for who they are, they are more likely to engage in the program and build meaningful relationships with their peers and adult leaders. Children should be encouraged to express themselves and their unique perspectives and to learn about and appreciate other cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. This helps to build empathy, compassion, and understanding among the participants and can promote social and emotional growth. This KIT Tip Sheet, Celebrating Diversity with Teens, provides practical strategies for creating a welcoming environment for middle school youth and teens from all backgrounds and identities.
  • Ensure that policies and procedures are equitable and consistent for all children. Address any incidents of discrimination or exclusion promptly and appropriately, in accordance with your program’s policies and values. Explore KIT services related to Policies & Standards here.


4. Encourage Peer Involvement 

Putting the importance of disability inclusion into practice means encouraging participants to support and engage with their peers. This can help foster mutual understanding and friendship, as well as foster a sense of community and belonging.

While “buddy systems” and group activities can facilitate interaction, truly embracing inclusion requires more than these structured efforts. Consistently reinforcing the values of inclusion across all aspects of a program is crucial to creating a genuinely inclusive environment. This means demonstrating empathy, understanding, and open-mindedness in every interaction, be it during practice sessions, games, or social events.

Coaches, instructors, and volunteers play a key role in modeling these values, but it’s equally important for peers to actively participate in creating an inclusive atmosphere.

Take a look at these useful techniques and resources:

  • Educate children about disability inclusion. Program managers and staff can teach children about different types of disabilities, the importance of inclusion, and how they can support their peers with disabilities. It’s also important to recognize and shatter false beliefs about kids with disabilities. Our blog, Dispelling 11 Common Myths About Kids with Disabilities, can help identify these misconceptions and provide accurate, research-backed information. You can also share this KIT video with your participants or staff, Inclusion is Belonging to help deepen their understanding of inclusion in a fun, interactive way.
  • Incorporate helper roles into your routine to empower all children. Program managers and staff should consistently provide opportunities for all kids to take on leadership responsibilities. This can significantly improve their self-confidence and sense of belonging. By making helper roles like “Timekeeper,” “Snack Helper,” or “First Aid Assistant” a recurring part of the weekly routine and rotating them among children, you can ensure everyone gets a turn to shine and contribute to the group’s success.
  • Make transitions from one activity to another smooth during group or peer interactions. Effective transitions are key to successful group or peer interactions. Poorly executed transitions can disrupt a routine and lead to disorderly group activities, while well-planned transitions can enhance interactions and lead to a more enjoyable experience. Discover creative and simple ideas for establishing fun transitions that will make your program smoother and your job easier in this KIT online course, FUNctional Transition Activities.


Summer is just around the corner! Have you thought about making your summer programs more inclusive?

There’s no better time than now for camp and program leaders to start gearing up and planning summer camps that consider how to include all children, including those with challenging behaviors or disabilities. 

That’s where our Ready, Set, Summer! On-Demand Webinar Series comes in! Currently available on-demand in KIT Academy through September 15, 2023.

Ready, Set, Summer! Kids Included Together

The series features facilitator guides and action plans created specifically for camp leaders looking to advance their inclusivity this summer. The focus is on disability inclusion as a top priority, with the goal of facilitating a welcoming, meaningful, and inclusive summer camp program to support children of all abilities.

By participating in this webinar, camp leaders can gain valuable insights and practical strategies to help create an environment that celebrates diversity and fosters a sense of belonging for all campers. With the help of these resources, camp leaders can confidently guide their staff in creating an inclusive culture that will benefit all children.

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Need more help? Contact KIT and our experienced staff will work with you to create a program that meets your specific needs!