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Therapeutic Recreation: Getting Kids with Disabilities into the Outdoors

Published on: December 30, 2011

The benefits of therapeutic recreation for kidsImagine a group of kids on a snowy slope, laughing and yelling as they hurtle downhill on skis or snowboards. Those of us who ski don’t think twice about the effort it takes to gear up and go with our kids, from plopping down in the snow to fastening a snowboard binding to riding the lift.

But for kids with disabilities, a trip to the nearest mountain pass can present insurmountable obstacles — for them or for their parents — at any step along the way. A child with a physical disability may not be able to get on a lift or haul her own gear. A child with a developmental disability may need close supervision and specialized instruction.

Without help, that child misses out on opportunities for the type of physical fun that enriches our lives. Enter local nonprofit Outdoors for All, which pushes aside those obstacles so that kids with a wide range of disabilities can participate in therapeutic recreation. Outdoors for All provides kids with adaptive gear and trained volunteers, enabling children with disabilities to safely — and competently — hit the slopes, go on a hike,cycle or ride a raft down a river.

“In society or in life, that disability is what people are known for,” says Outdoors for All executive director Ed Bronsdon. “But in our program, it’s secondary.” He notes that people observing Outdoors for All programs at Stevens Pass or The Summit at Snoqualmie sometimes ask him where the kids in the program are, because they’re not immediately identifiable as having disabilities. “We’re transforming lives through outdoor recreation,” he says.

Developing strength, balance, confidence

Kathy Alm, executive director of Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville, is careful to distinguish between therapeutic recreation and recreational therapy. Recreational therapy is a medical model in which trained therapists use art, music, animals or physical activity to achieve their goals with a patient. The goal of therapeutic recreation, on the other hand, is to create adaptations so that people with disabilities have access to activities that they wouldn’t otherwise have — and to reap the social, mental, emotional and physical benefits of those activities along the way.

Little Bit’s adaptive riding program, says Alm, helps kids with disabilities to develop strength, flexibility and balance. But, just as important, “There is a huge boost of self-esteem and confidence. You’re put on top of this 1,100-pound animal, and you are in control.”

Outdoor recreation for children with special needsIn the forms of therapeutic recreation offered by Little Bit and Outdoors for All, equipment is modified or brought in (a child in a wheelchair, for example, may use a bi-ski), and volunteers work closely with the kids as they ride, ski, hike or cycle. Each adaptive rider at Little Bit, for example, works with three volunteers to start to ensure the rider stays balanced in the saddle and safe.

Bronsdon says that at Outdoors for All, “We want to make sure that the right level of support is there for whoever needs it.” That means a high volunteer-to-child ratio; a child may ski with two volunteers, and have another volunteer waiting at the base of the mountain to help load the child into the chair. Little Bit currently keeps a two-year waiting list for its programs, although the company is raising money to double its capacity.

To sign up for an Outdoors for All program, visit its website. It offers alpine and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding in winter; and cycling, waterskiing, hiking, rock climbing and other sports in the spring and summer.

The organization boasts a robust fundraising ability, so families that need it can get financial assistance; to find therapeutic recreation opportunities for kids with disabilities, see our list of resources.

Seattle-Area Therapeutic Recreational Programs for Kids

Outdoors for All offers a wide variety of outdoor activities, during all seasons, to children and adults with disabilities. Financial assistance is available. 

Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center offers therapeutic riding and hippotherapy to clients of all ages. There is currently a waiting list to enter the program.

Washington State Therapeutic Recreation Association offers a list of organizations that offer adaptive recreation, and companies that sell adaptive clothing and devices.

Heart of Sailing features free sails out of Kirkland, Tacoma and Olympia for children with developmental disabilities and their families.

Wilderness Inquiry is a Minnesota-based nonprofit that offers family adventure trips to people of all ages and abilities. 

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