Therapeutic Benefits

Developing Recreation Skills in Persons with Learning Disabilities

Lorraine C. Peniston
selected excerpts, Sagamore Publishing, 1998

by Regina Cicci, Ph.D.

TrikingPerhaps nothing reveals so much about individuals as how they choose to play - how they invest their time and energy for leisure time. Leisure is that time free from demands of school, work, or required activities of daily living. Everyone needs regular recreation that develops skills, promotes good health, relieves stress, facilitates social interactions, and provides a general joy for living.

For recreation, we choose activities at which we can be successful. Good readers read. Athletes seek sports' activities. Musicians lose themselves in music. Visual artists paint or draw. Craftspeople create. Social individuals engage in group activities. Observers appreciate the efforts of others - whether a basketball game, painting, fine meal, or concert.

Children, adolescents, and adults with learning disabilities may find themselves with limited opportunities to fully enjoy leisure time. A lack of perceptual, motor, memory, linguistic, or organizational skills may cause them as much difficulty for leisure as they have at school or work. Fear of failure may limit their reaching out to access recreational activities. Just as we teach children with dyslexia to read, those with math disabilities to understand math, those with linguistic problems to better comprehend and use language, we must teach skills and provide practice so individuals with learning disabilities can achieve some recreational proficiencies. When skills are not as well developed as necessary and compensations are not made, agencies, institutions, instructors, and coaches can be helped to make necessary accommodations. Satisfying leisure time for persons with learning and other disabilities is as important as accomplishments at home, school, and work.


Why should a person with learning disabilities engage in recreation activities? Simply because they can derive many benefits from recreation participation. One benefit is learning from the experience. When the recreation activity experience has captivated the participant, this individual brings particular personality styles of learning, motivation, and expectations about the experience to the setting. The person faced with a specific environment, interpreted by the person or not, promotes one or more learning experiences. These learning experiences can be motor learning, understanding game directions, or performing a skill, all to meet the demands of that setting. These experiences may come from involvement in a structured recreation program and may be exhibited as part of the information outcomes of participation. Researchers in the field of learning and educational psychology have discovered a variety of learning outcomes. The following outcomes can be present because of participation in recreation activities: behavior change and skill learning, direct visual memory, information (factual) learning, concept learning, schemata learning, metacognition learning and attitude, and value learning (Roggenbuck, Loomis, & Dagostino, 1991).

The physiological benefits of recreation participation were derived from studies where people engage in physical activity of some kind (e.g., exercise, cycling, swimming, walking, jogging, running, hiking, weight lifting, etc). Specific results from involvement in a physical recreation activity are an increased lung capacity, reduced resting heart rates and lower blood pressure levels. Other benefits consist of decreased body fat mass, increased lean body mass, increased muscle strength, and improved structure and function of connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage) and joints. Weight-bearing and strength-building activities help sustain bone mass and reduce the incidence of trauma-induced fractures (Paffenbarger, Hyde, & Dow, 1990). Moderate physical recreation activities are known to reduce the symptoms of mild or moderate depression and anxiety through improved self-image, social skills, and mental health (Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985). Noted psychological benefits of recreation activity are as follows:

  • perceived sense of freedom, independence, and autonomy,
  • enhanced self-competence through improved sense of self-worth, self-reliance, and self-confidence,
  • better ability to socialize with others, including greater tolerance and understanding,
  • enriched capabilities for team membership,
  • heightened creative ability,
  • improved expressions of and reflection on personal spiritual ideals,
  • greater adaptability and resiliency,
  • better sense of humor,
  • enhanced perceived quality of life,
  • more balanced competitiveness and a more positive outlook on life (Academy of Leisure Sciences & Driver, 1994).

Involvement in recreation activities releases stress and tension from the perils of society. Braum (1991) recalls the findings of researchers that state,"relaxation tends to alleviate many of the symptoms of stress. Activities that fill leisure time, performed within a group, strengthen social support ties known to negate stress" (p. 407). The idea of choice in leisure presents opportunities where one can recreate.

One's environment can be a determinant to stress reduction. Natural environments can be pleasant, relaxing, and stress-reducing for many people, but large urban cities also provide the same experience. Having too much free time and limited access to various recreation activities of one's liking can produce stress. So, for those individuals living out in the country who have access to transportation, the joy of partaking in cultural events in the city on a weekly or monthly basis provides the opportunity for a stress-limited lifestyle. The same can be said for people living in the city who recreate in the country.

Social integration of children and adults with learning disabilities into community recreation programs offers the chance to develop a positive self-image through successful experiences and satisfying relationships with peers. McGill (1984) reports that integrated play opportunities are stimulating and highly motivating experiences for disabled children, offering them opportunities to imitate and model the play behavior of nondisabled peers. Social integration also enhances relationships between family members. We've all heard of the old adage,"The family that plays together stays together." This adage infers that leisure experiences promote family satisfaction and stability. Recreation activities provide opportunities for couples and families to interact and negotiate individual and collective interests. Orthner and Mancini (1991) state some benefits to the family:

Leisure experiences promote opportunities for developing equity. Unlike many other environments within which people interact, leisure experiences promote opportunities for each individual to maximize her or his own interests and minimize competition. It is during leisure time when husbands and wives, and parents and children, are most apt to practice by negotiating family roles and reaching new definitions of consensuses.When individual interests are promoted over maximum joint interest, family bonds are weakened. Shared leisure experiences encourage opportunities to negotiations and improve the historical comparisons upon which subsequent negotiations are based. (p. 294)

Benefits of leisure in social integration are also noted in people without disabilities. The chance to learn from and to socialize with nondisabled peers has been cited as one benefit for individuals with disabilities participating in integrated and fully inclusive programs. Research in the 1980s determined that positive attitudes of children not having disabilities toward peers having disabilities were cultivated or increased when involved with an integrated recreation activity (Schleien & Ray, 1988). Recreation service providers also learn from this experience. Due to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, all private, public, and nonprofit agencies delivering recreation services to the public must supply accommodations and modifications within their programs to persons with disabilities (as requested). These professionals may not have any knowledge of providing accommodations and/or modifications to participants with learning disabilities. The person with learning disabilities, upon disclosure, thus needs to educate the professional about what accommodations and/or program modifications should be arranged to enable full participation in recreation programs. This social interaction not only contributes awareness of this situation to another person but also demonstrates how important it is for individuals with disabilities to participate in a particular recreation activity like everyone else.

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Information reproduced with publishers permission.

Peniston, L.C. (1998). Developing Recreation Skills
in Persons with Learning Disabilities. Champaign, IL.
Sagamore Publishing.