Adapted PE, Recreation and Leisure

Adapted Physical Education

A young boy sits in a swing and plays with beads attached to an Essef Board on a stand to work on strengthening his legs and learning to move himself.
A young boy sits in a swing and plays with beads attached to an Essef Board on a stand to work on strengthening his legs and learning to move himself.

Adapted Physical Education (APE)  is physical education which has been adapted or modified, so that it is as appropriate for the person with a disability as it is for a person without a disability. Though not specifically a related service or therapy, we include it here as it is closely related to PT, OT, O&M and recreational skills instruction.

Adapted PE is not a related service because physical education for children with disabilities is a federally mandated component of special education services [U.S.C.A. 1402 (25)]. This means that physical education needs to be provided to the student with a disability as part of the  special education services that child and family receive. Federal law defines Physical Education as the development of:

      • physical and motor skills
      • fundamental motor skills and patterns (throwing, catching, walking, running, etc.)
      • skills in aquatics, dance, and individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports)

Adapted Physical Education National Standards

Children with significant developmental disabilities should have access to physical education that is meaningful and developmentally appropriate. For some children, participation in APE classes might be appropriate. Unfortunately, in some APE classes, these children often spend a lot of time on the sidelines while other children play.

Active Learning is a wonderful way to provide required APE instruction. Perhaps the team will consult with the APE instructor about equipment that can be used in the gym or outside during PE class with the  child. The APE instructor may not be the person working directly with the student, but instead role-release to an assistant or paraprofessional.  At times, there may be activities that can occur in small group activities such a throwing balls or rolling balls back and forth.  If a child is working on rolling from back to tummy or vice versa, this can be done during a gym session on mats with other children. For students in a classroom where some of the larger equipment can’t be used easily, perhaps the child can have a corner of the gym to use a HOPSA Dress on a trapeze, a hanging swing, Essef Board and Wall Ladder, or other equipment they can travel to use several times each day.

Recreation and Leisure

Research has shown that recreation is an important factor in quality of life for everyone, including people with disabilities. People who engage in recreational activities will likely benefit by having improved cardiovascular function, better ability to sleep, improved self-esteem, increased stamina, and decreased stress levels, all of which not only improve quality of life but also have positive benefits for other activities.

Beyond the health and wellness benefits of physical fitness touted in the media, when one’s body is more accustomed to the different types of physical movements inherent in recreation and fitness activities, that person generally has better flexibility, strength, and stamina. With improved physical fitness, independent living skills are easier to perform and less stressful on the body. In addition, recreation is a highly social phenomenon organized around friendships or family groups, and these social interactions buffer the effects of stress on health. With this in mind, recreational activity that increases physical activity and improves fitness should be encouraged.

Recreation, Fitness, and Leisure and the Expanded Core Curriculum: What Are Recreation, Fitness, and Leisure?

American Printing House for the Blind – Family Connect

Leisure activities also include things like listening to music, painting, jewelry making, creating collections of things (stamps, baseball cards), gardening and many other things. The problem for most children with significant developmental disabilities is that they can’t always decide what they would like to do when they are not “working”. They need support to both access and learn what things might be possible. Active Learning can be a great approach to introduce and teach leisure skills.

Below are just a few examples of recreation and leisure activities children with significant disabilities might enjoy. 


Gardening can include activities like planting and picking vegetables, watering the plants, or digging in the dirt. Instead of gardening some children might enjoy simply playing in a sandbox, at a water table, or a bin of dried beans or rice. If the child cannot support his/herself in standing or kneeling, place the bin or table to the side or position the child on a Support Bench with containers at hands and feet.

A young many enjoys gardening in a raised bed garden.
A young man enjoys gardening in a raised bed garden.

Arts and Crafts

All types of art activities can be quite enjoyable for children of all ages and developmental levels. Paint using a brush, vegetable slices, sponges, or fingers. Paint, pudding, water, and mud make great mediums. If the child cannot sit unsupported, put paper on an Essef Board in a stand and let the child paint using feet by placing a tub of tempera paint or colored water.

A young girl enjoys painting.
A young girl enjoys painting.

Music Appreciation

In addition to simply listening to music there is always dancing or moving to music. This can be done independently or with a peer or other partner. Making music is also fun for some children. Check out music therapy for more ideas on using music in Active Learning. Music can encourage the child to vocalize more. Let the child explore musical instruments such as keyboards, harmonicas, and drums. Play with rhythm band instruments.

A young boy enjoys listening to music while having a snack.
A young boy enjoys listening to music while having a snack.

Water Activities

Water activities are frequent favorites in warm weather. Play in a pool or water table, play with a water hose or sprinkler, or play in a bucket of water with spoons, paint brushes and wire whisks. When the weather is no conducive to outdoor water play, indoor water table play with objects for pouring or water in tubs at the head or feet while on a Support Bench can be fun. Blow bubbles in water using straws. Make soap bubbles in water by patting hands in water with dish detergent. Place tooth bushes, utensils and straws in a tub of water for the child to play with things to put in his/her mouth.

Two children play on a slip and slide that empties into a shallow pool.
Two children play on a slip and slide that empties into a shallow pool.

Outdoor Play

Outdoor playscapes are natural places to play for some children. If the child is not able to climb being positioned by a fence or wall with interesting objects to explore can be fun as well. With support some children who cannot swing might enjoy draping across a swing on their tummies and dragging their feet in sand or water. Safety is a big consideration. Consider the child’s skills and the level of support they will need to play in any outdoor environment.

A chain-link fence on a playground has various plates and pans attached for banging.
A chain-link fence on a playground has various plates and pans attached for banging.

Walking and Hiking

Simply taking a walk outdoors is a great leisure activity, especially if you take time to explore nature. Collect leaves, flowers, branches of wood. These can be used to create art pieces when you return or added to an experience book, which you can share as another leisure activity. Walk in familiar and unfamiliar places such as the store or at the beach. Walking is something that can happen even if the child is in a stroller or can only walk a short distance. Consider combining walking or crawling during part of a ride in a wheelchair or stroller. 

A young boy and an adult play in a pile of autumn leaves.
A young boy and an adult play in a pile of autumn leaves.

Recreation and Leisure

Active Learning is a wonderful way to provide opportunities for recreation and leisure. Listen to some of the activities Dr. Joe Gibson does with older students who are deafblind. He uses an Active Learning approach because he allows the individuals time to explore materials, picks activities based on preferences and skills, and focuses on experience and exploration.  Joe is currently a teacher at the Diamond School for pupils who are deafblind (formally Skådalen) in Oslo, Norway. He previously worked for Sense Scotland as the Outdoor Activities Coordinator.

Outdoors with and for People Who Are Deafblind is a archived recording of a presentation by Dr. Gibson that shares information about the benefits of recreational activities outdoor. He provides many examples of activities such as canoeing, climbing, hiking and other outdoor activities that he teaches young adults who are deafblind how to participate in at the facility where he works in Norway. His approach incorporates some of the same strategies suggested in an Active Learning approach.

Deafblind Insights – Joe Gibson

Interview with Dr. Joe Gibson Outdoor former Activities Coordinator; Sense Scotland, Glasgow, Scotland.

Adapted PE Games for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Dr. Elina Mullin, Adapted PE Instructor at Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired has many suggestions for adapting equipment to let students who are visually impaired access sports and games. Although many of these activities would be at a developmental level that is inappropriate for children with significant developmental delays, some children definitely would enjoy playing with the equipment. Notice the use of different textures and sounds play an important role. For example,  child who is pulling to stand might enjoy pushing balls down a baby slide to knock down a collection of shoeboxes, plastic bowling pins, or other lightweight objects. Older students who can stand independently might enjoy batting at a volley ball in a net that is suspended just above their heads.

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Dean on a Trike

A teenage boy rides a large tricycle on a driveway. He pedals backwards and forwards.

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Download: Transcript (txt)

Playing with Various Balls in the Throwing Center

A young girl sits in a center that is designed for throwing and explores various types of balls with her feet. She does not throw the balls very much or very far yet.

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Playing with Skates

Using an Active Learning approach means that you allow the child to become familiar with equipment before trying to teach skills. Once activity is to let children sit in a chair or stand using a HOPSA with roller skates on their feet. Not only do these skates make a great sound when they are rolled or banged on surfaces such as a Resonance Board, they provide interesting proprioceptive feedback to feet, ankles, knees and legs. A variation is to let the child roll there feet while being pushed in a rolling office chair.

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Tap shoes or pop cans attached to the bottom of shoes can also be a fun, noise-making activity.