Participation at Recess + Accessibility Concerns

I hope you enjoyed my blog post last week involving playground equipment and how these pieces of equipment positively impact gross motor function as well as sensory systems! This week I want to discuss how physical therapy in the school system facilitates recess and accessibility to the playground for children with disabilities. 

For children with range of motion, strength, coordination, balance, and/or overall gross motor deficits, the playground can be a frustrating place. For some children, even accessing the uneven terrain on a playground can be extremely challenging, so this is often where we start. We practice walking on grass, gravel, mulch, cracked pavement, and negotiating any obstacles on the playground (such as playground timber, steps, etc). We practice navigating graded terrain such as hills, small bumps or holes, and inclines/declines. For other children, the issue may be accessing the playground equipment itself such as swings, gliders/spinners, slides or fireman’s poles, stairs, ladders or other climbers, monkey bars, dynamic surfaces, etc. Whatever the child may be struggling with, we practice, tailoring the level of assistance and cueing (verbal, visual, and tactile) to only what the child needs in order to perform the skill. As they improve we gradually reduce the amount of assistance & cueing until hopefully they are performing the skill on their own!

In some cases, there may be children who have such significant physical disabilities that even with assistance & practice they may not be able to access the playground environment, including the playground equipment. In these cases, as school-based physical therapists, we look for adapted equipment or modifications that can be made to the entrances/exits of the playground or to the playground equipment itself that will be inclusive for all children. Many companies that specialize in playgrounds & playground equipment now make swings, gliders, spinners, jungle gyms, etc. that are also conducive & accessible to children in wheelchairs! 

Unfortunately, cost can be a barrier for some schools/school districts in obtaining this specialized playground equipment. However, in these circumstances, we work with what we have & look for other recess areas in which a child could participate such as on the hardtop/basketball court area, sidewalks, and/or courtyard areas. Ultimately, the goal is to encourage as much participation from the child as they are capable, so in these instances where recess may be more adapted we practice ball skills (catching, throwing, kicking, dribbling, shooting hoops, etc.), dance & move our bodies, blow bubbles, play music, design & play obstacle courses, and/or anything to engage them & create a fun environment. 

One of my favorite ways to support adapted recess that’s conducted on hardtop areas, like those discussed above, is The Sensory Path’s™ Outdoor Sensory Stencils. These Outdoor Sensory Stencils are used to design beautiful Sensory Paths that function like obstacle courses, encouraging children to perform gross motor skills such as stepping, jumping, hopping, and balancing. These Sensory Paths also challenge coordination and the ability to sequence multi-step activities while utilizing movements that support their sensory systems & enhance body awareness. I have used these Outdoor Sensory Stencils in my own practice and love them! They aren’t messy like chalk and are permanent so they are always an option for gross motor play. The Sensory Paths from the Outdoor Sensory Stencils can be utilized in many different ways and the stencils can be used an endless amount of times. The movements can even be adapted to utilize with children in wheelchairs! They are also perfect for using on days when the playground is too wet or muddy and recess is moved to the hardtop. 

As we all know the weather can be pretty uncooperative at times! You may be asking but what about recess on days when the weather is stormy? What then? Sometimes if it’s actively storming or if it’s been really rainy the playground may be too wet to play on and recess is moved indoors. On these days many teachers struggle to find activities that engage children in gross motor play. For indoor recess, I often encourage teachers to avoid utilizing tablets, TVs, or projectors to pass the time as our children get ENOUGH screen time. One of my favorite ways to get kids up and moving during indoor recess is through The Sensory Path’s™ Learning Noodles! These are flexible mats with beautiful designs on which children engage in gross motor movement that encourages gross motor play & development, sensory input, and kinesthetic learning. They are about the size of a yoga mat, can be rolled up & stored away, and thank goodness … they are easily cleaned! 

I hope this post provides some insight into how school-based physical therapists address accessibility & facilitate participation on the playground and at recess. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize a child’s participation at recess and accessibility to & while on the playground generally as well as to the playground equipment. Gross motor play is so important to a child’s physical but also mental/cognitive, emotional, and social development. Thus, increasing access to the playground & its equipment as well as improving participation at recess for all children, regardless of physical or mental impairments, is so imperative. Recess should be fun, stimulating and a safe time for children to move & strengthen their bodies! Thanks for reading and thanks to The Sensory Path™ for their stellar products, the Outdoor Sensory Stencils and Learning Noodles, that make gross motor play whether recess happens to be indoors or outdoors, a fun, stimulating learning experience that is accessible to & inclusive of all students.

See y’all next week!


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist  

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