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Inclusive Physical Education


Many teachers and coaches have questions about how best to include children with disabilities in physical education. This article aims to help teachers, student teachers, and coaches to:

  • Consider various factors that can affect a pupil's ability to participate in physical education activities.
  • Recognize how physical education activities can be adapted to better suit a child.
  • Identify resources that can help in learning more about this area.

While this article will discuss physical education (PE), the same principles and ideas discussed here can be used in any physical activity setting, including a sports club, a summer camp, or a fitness program. Similarly, the ideas can be used when working with children of any age.

There are two important points to consider initially:

Thinking about Participation

Can we organize PE activities so all pupils can participate? This will depend on how we organize activities and on the environment in which they take place. Let's look at some examples (from 'Action for Life, Action for Everybody' from the Irish Heart Foundation):

  • Brian is a child who is able to walk and run, but has problems with eye-hand coordination. During PE class one day, his class plays a game of baseball. When it is his turn to bat, he cannot manage to hit the ball when it is thrown towards him.
  • Danny has similar coordination problems. When his class plays baseball, he has the option of batting the ball while the ball rests on an oversize tee. He manages to strike the ball, and take part in the game.
  • Tara has a visual impairment. Her class begins PE by jogging around the field to warm up. She is asked to sit out because the teacher is concerned about the risk of her falling.
  • Eileen has a similar impairment. Her teacher pairs her with a partner who assists in guiding her as they run. Eileen and her partner participate in the warm-up along with the rest of the class.
  • Michael usually uses two crutches to help him walk. During a PE class, his class practices fielding. He tries to walk with one crutch, so he has a free hand to hold his glove. However, he finds it very difficult to stand with only one crutch, and becomes tired very quickly.
  • Gavin has similar mobility impairment. His teacher ensures there is a bench or chair available at the field during the class. Gavin has the option of sitting on this, and practicing fielding skills from a sitting position.

All the above children have some kind of impairment - of coordination, vision, or motor control. However, Danny, Eileen, and Gavin all participate fully in their class activities. We can see that having a disability does not mean that a pupil cannot participate in the class activity.

Key point: We can adapt a movement activity to suit the abilities of a child, and thereby allow him or her to participate fully.

Thinking about Differing Abilities in a Group

Within one class, children will differ in many ways. Children will have different heights, different builds, different hair colors, different reading abilities, different musical tastes, and different favorite sports. When we're planning physical education activities, we need to consider other ways in which children will differ:

  • Children will differ in their ability to move.
  • Children will differ in how well they can see or hear.
  • Children will differ in how they take in and process information about the world around them.

If a group of children participate in any movement activity - whether running 50m, rolling across a mat, or dribbling a basketball - there will be big differences in how they perform these. This range of abilities exists whether or not there is someone with a diagnosed disability in the group.

Key point: We can adapt or individualize our activity whenever it will create a more appropriate activity for a child. This might be for one, some, or all children in a group.

We will now look at some ways to adapt baseball activities.

Individualizing the Task Demands of an Activity

"Individualizing task difficulty is a basic element of education, and of adapted physical education in particular." -- Martin Block

Any type of teaching or coaching requires us to set an appropriate task difficulty. What components of our PE activities can we adapt?

  • The Movement Form
  • The Environment
  • The Equipment
  • The Rules
  • The Instructions

Adapting the Movement Form

One of the simplest ways of adapting an activity is to modify or substitute the movement involved. Can we suggest a slightly different movement that may be more appropriate for some pupils?

  • Instead of running or walking, think about different forms of locomotion that some pupils could use:
    • Propelling themselves in a wheelchair
    • Driving a powered chair
    • Riding a tricycle
    • Pedaling a hand-bike
    • Walking with a partner
    • Crawling / walking on all fours
    • Rolling across a mat
  • Instead of throwing a ball, think about different ways of passing a ball:
    • Carrying a ball between two points
    • Dropping / releasing a ball at a certain marker
    • Rolling a ball along the floor
  • Instead of catching a ball, think about different ways of stopping or catching a moving ball:
    • Blocking a ball using your own body
    • Intercepting a ball using a bat or glove
    • Blocking a ball using netting held between pupil and a partner

Adapting the Environment

Children with mobility problems can get about in different ways. When we look at the field, we need to consider all the various means of locomotion that could be used within this space:

  • Crawling
  • Rolling
  • Bottom-shuffling
  • Propelling wheelchair
  • Propelling cycle or tricycle
  • Walking, skipping, hopping, running
  • Walking with an assistive device
  • Walking or running with a partner

How can we organize our playing area so these forms of mobility may be used?

  • Ensure there is a good floor surface, to allow smooth running of wheelchairs or other mobility aids.
  • Find out if there are specific types of mobility aids that may be of use to pupils in your group: talk to a physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
  • Position benches or chairs at specific points on the field. These can be used during the practice for children who have difficulty standing for extended periods.

Children with difficulties in standing or walking may enjoy participating in activities from the floor - for example, from a sitting, kneeling, or side-lying position.

  • Have comfortable gym mats / exercise mats on the ground.
  • Find out if there is positioning equipment that could be of use during PE or practice: Children with muscle spasticity may have difficulty lying or sitting directly on the mat - foam wedges and rolls can help the child achieve a stable position on the mat. There is also more specialist support furniture available to help maintain positions such as side lying, or lying in a prone (on the front) position. Children who would benefit from these usually have contact with a physical therapist - you can discuss the most appropriate type of support with the child's physical therapist.

Within the field, are we using all available space together? Do we want to create separate zones where certain children can have more space?

  • Use colored cones to mark out separate zones, or use chalk to draw lines.

Adapting Equipment

There are many options to adapt any equipment used in PE or practice. We can adapt the type of ball used. Think about the different characteristics of baseball that we can adapt:

  • The weight / traveling speed of the ball: We can choose between a baseball, a softball, a soft baseball, a foam ball, a tennis ball, or a plastic ball.
  • The size of the ball: We can choose a baseball, a softball, a soccer ball, or a beach ball.
  • The sensory input and texture of the ball: To provide sound as the ball is played, we can use a goalball. This is a ball with bells inside. We can get a similar effect by using a plastic shopping bag: put a ball in a bag; tie the top of the bag together tightly. The ball will make noise as it rolls.
    • To provide different tactile surfaces, we can find balls with different coverings, tie netting around a ball, or attach pieces of fabric to the ball.
    • To provide extra visual input, we can use brightly colored balls, or balls with streamers attached.

We can adapt any bats used:

  • We can adapt the weight of the bat used: Consider the difference between using a beginner's bat compared to a high school level bat, or in using a plastic bat compared to a foam bat.
  • We can adapt the grip of the bat: Bats with shorter handles are easier to control.
  • We can adapt the way the bat is held: Strapping can be used to secure the hand / wrist to the bat handle. Alternatively, the athlete can wear a mitten on their hand, and use a Velcro attachment to the bat handle.

We can adapt the target or goal used in games:

  • Targets for distance throwing: Draw different-colored lines to show 1 meter, 2 meters, etc., from the throwing point.
  • Targets for accuracy: Adapt the size of the target - e.g., throwing into a small box or a larger box.
    • Think about using graduated targets - e.g., goalposts of blue cones 5m apart; inside these, position red cones 3m apart.
    • Adapt the distance of the pupil from the target: remember this does not have to be the same for everyone, or the same throughout the game. Pupils can move further back from a target as they progress.
    • Adapt the height of the target, e.g., a basketball net can be lowered
  • Targets with additional sensory feedback: Use a bin that makes noise when the ball lands in it. Attach bells to skittles so they make noise when they are knocked.

We can adapt the freedom of the ball to move:

  • We can create a funnel for the ball to travel in once propelled along the ground. Lay two gym benches on their side. Pupils can use this funnel for any activity where they are sending a ball on the ground - rolling, dribbling, and kicking.
  • For beginners' hitting activities, an athlete can aim for and swing at slower-moving balloons or bubbles instead of a ball.

These are only some examples of how equipment can be adapted. Over time, you will come up with your own adaptations to add to this list.

Adapting Rules and Instructions

Some children may have difficulty following the rules or format of games.

  • Start with games / activities that have few rules to remember. Introduce further rules one at a time when pupils have grasped the pattern or flow of the activity.
  • Explain instructions using a minimum of different words.
  • Try to minimize the time between giving instructions and starting the activity
  • Think about using ways to slow down the activity when starting, e.g., using a slower moving ball.

We can make our instructions as clear as possible for all pupils, including those who might have a hearing or vision problem.

  • Make sure the field is well lit, and that the teacher is clearly visible to all pupils.
  • Minimize background noise during instruction.
  • Have a flip chart or board available for giving further visual instruction.
  • Think about how to have good eye contact for children who may sit at a lower height (e.g., in a wheelchair): Kneel down or sit on a bench.

Can we make use of different forms of communication in our PE activity?

  • Picture symbols are useful when working with children who use augmentative communication devices: discuss with the child's speech and language therapist which symbols would be useful, and how they can be best used.
  • A multi-sensory approach can be used when giving instructions - for example: Give verbal explanation with an accompanying demonstration; or Give verbal explanation while manually assisting a pupil through a movement.
  • Musical sounds or recorded sounds can be used to signal when to perform a certain activity

It is important to keep directions simple and clear. Try not to use complex or abstract descriptions of body movement:

  • For example, use: "How high can you reach in the air?" instead of: "Straighten your arm above your head."

How can we provide closer instruction for pupils who may benefit from it? Pupils with a movement problem can receive help from a partner or "buddy."

  • A pupil is paired with a partner, or buddy, who will help him or her during an activity. The pupil might receive physical assistance, feedback, and / or encouragement from the buddy. Remember also that there should be reciprocal helping between pupil and buddy. In cases where the pupil is not able to physically assist his or her buddy, there are still possibilities for the pupil to give feedback and encouragement as the buddy practices an activity.
  • The benefits of the buddy system are threefold:
    • The pupil gets one-to-one assistance, and spends much more time on task than if he or she was dependent on help solely from the teacher.
    • The buddy gains a better insight into the abilities of their partner, and can learn the importance of people participating in sport / physical activity at their own level.
    • Both pupil and buddy learn through the process of instructing / helping their partner.

Thinking About Group Dynamics

There are various techniques we can use to try to keep children happy and engaged in their activities. One of the best ways to learn about these is to watch how experienced coaches and physical educators work with a group of children. The following are some examples of strategies that can be helpful with a group of children of mixed abilities.

Use non-competitive goals.

Introducing competition into games / activities can be one way of motivating children to focus on a task. However, competition often involves crude comparison or ranking between children. Some children may find that they are never winners. Over time, these children will "learn" that they are not good at sport / physical activity.

The solution lies in providing all children with a challenge in the way of a target or goal. These goals do not have to involve competition against their peers. As children become familiar with these types of goals, they can be involved in setting the goals.

  • Set goals or targets in relation to learning new things: "Today we're all going to learn about different ways to strike a ball with a stick." "We're all going to practice 3 different sports over this term."
  • Think about goals that will develop creativity, as opposed to focusing exclusively on skilled performance: "Can you all come up with as many different ways to send the ball to your partner?" "Can you think of different ways of moving around this room?"
  • Set goals (or facilitate the class to set goals) that target changes in fitness or learning they can make over a period of time: "We will practice at least five different sports activities over this term." "We will all improve our skills in X activity." "The combined score for the group / class will be higher than last week." "I will improve my fitness score between now and the summer [from a suitable fitness test]."

Relate attribution theory to pupils' PE/sports performance.

It can be a difficult situation for all if one pupil is visibly struggling to complete an activity. Attribution theory can give a useful framework for this situation. If an athlete is not succeeding in a task, we can think? - Is the problem with the pupil? - Is the problem with the strategy used? [For "strategy," think of the movement form, environment, equipment, rules, and instructions.] Sometimes a pupil will think that his or her lack of ability is the problem. We can encourage them to think more about external factors that might be the problem, and how these could be altered. For example, if a child is not managing a soccer drill, we can say; "You seem to be having difficulty with this drill. I think we chose the wrong-size ball* to use." (*This could be any factor from the adaptations listed above.) Over time, progress this way of thinking to;  "You seem to be having difficulty with this drill. How do you think we can change it to make it work better?"

Use the optimal groupings for each activity.

Use whatever groupings work best for the activity you are working on, and use different groupings through the session as needed.

  • Full class in one group: There are activities that a full class can do together in one large group. These can include the warm-up, the cool-down, a relaxation session, or watching a demonstration.
  • Small groups: In team games or drills, small team / group sizes give athletes more chances to be involved in the play. Consider the difference of time-on-task in 4-per-side baseball compared to 9-per-side baseball. Pupils spend more time-on-task this way.
  • Groups of similar ability: When practicing or developing a new skill, there may be athletes who will acquire the skill more slowly than their peers. In this situation, consider grouping athletes of a similar ability together.

Planning Inclusively

Planning PE lessons is not an option when dealing with any mixed ability group. Prior planning is essential.

  1. Decide on the aims of the PE session, and on the activities you will do to achieve these: What is the central purpose of the lesson? What activities will be performed? What type of groupings will be used? What instructions or prompts will I use? Write down these as a lesson plan, or choose a lesson plan from one of your resources.
  2. Read through the lesson plan, think through each stage of the lesson, and think about the children in the group. Ask yourself: "Whom am I excluding if I carry out this activity?"
  3. For parts of the lesson that are not inclusive, the next question to ask is: "How can I adapt the...
    • Movement form
    • Environment
    • Equipment
    • Rules
    • Instructions
      "..So everyone will be able to participate?"

The challenge is to adapt an activity so that everyone is participating, and everyone is working on the same theme or capacity. Prepare in advance any adaptations to equipment or the environment. For changes in rules and instructions, write down what rules / instructions will be used. It is not always easy to remember these in the middle of a lesson while you are surrounded by eager, active children.

Making Use of Resources

We can all benefit from learning more about physical activity and sport, and how we can best include children with disabilities. Who can help us? How can we improve our activities?

  1. The pupil: No one has a better insight into a child's abilities, likes, and dislikes, than the child himself or herself. Both pupil and teacher will be eager to find a way for the pupil to participate fully. Think of this as a learning situation for teacher and pupil. Discuss your ideas with the child, challenge him or her to think of adaptations, or of new types of games to play. Remember, pupils that have had an input into developing a game or activity are likely to be more motivated and interested in participating in it.
  2. The Classmates: Along with a pupil who has some type of impairment, there may be many classmates who are willing to help. Peers can help by working in a buddy system, or by contributing their ideas of adaptations to make games more inclusive. These will work best if the class has engaged in activities to improve awareness. Awareness activities that could be tried are:
    • Sensitizing activities: the peers can simulate having an impairment by wearing a blindfold, restricting the movement of an arm, using a wheelchair, etc. During this time they can attempt different sports skills, and discuss their thoughts afterwards.
    • Class discussions: the class can discuss how sport and physical activity is enjoyed by different types of people; young and old, male and female, non-disabled persons and persons with disabilities. Photographs or video clips from the Paralympic Games can be very useful for such discussions, as the Games feature a wide range of sports for people with different types of impairment.
  3. The Specialists: Organizing physical activity for children involves specialist knowledge from the fields of education, health, and sports. Can we learn from all the specialists in these three areas?
    • Health professionals: physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists
      These professionals are experienced in developing games and activities with specific therapeutic goals for children with disabilities. It may be possible to include some of these therapeutic goals within the PE lesson. They are also the best source of information about specialist equipment that a child may be using for mobility, seating, or communication.
    • Sports specialists: Sports development officers and club coaches may have years of experience in organizing sports. In particular, they may have strategies for organizing exercise and games with large groups of children.
    • Educators: It can be helpful to look at how other schools have dealt with inclusion in physical education. There may be teachers at primary or second level in your area who have particular experience in this.
  4. Adapted sports organizations for people with disabilities: These organizations can be a good resource to learn more about particular sports, specialist equipment that is used at competitive level, and training techniques used by specific disability groups. You can learn more about specific sports that have been developed for people with disabilities, such as boccia, petra-running, and polybat.
  5. Publications, Internet Resources, CD-ROM: There are two specialist journals in the area of inclusive sport and physical activity. These are very useful resources for learning about current research and thinking in this area:
    • Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly (Human Kinetics)
    • Palaestra: Forum of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation for Those with Disabilities (Palaestra).
      There are various Web sites on the subject of adapted physical activity, which can provide ideas. The NCHPAD Web site ( provides links to a wide range of useful Web sites.

Three of the best books on the subject of inclusion in physical education and sport are:

  1. Adapted Physical Activity, Recreation and Sport by Claudine Sherrill (WCB / McGraw-Hill, 1998).
  2. Strategies for Inclusion: A Handbook for Physical Educators by Lauron Lieberman and Cathy Houston-Willis (Human Kinetics, 2002).
  3. Inclusion Through Sports by Ronald W. Davis (Human Kinetics, 2002).


The THENAPA Network has produced a CD-ROM designed to help teachers and coaches learn more about adapting physical activity for people with a disability.


This article has been developed from work done by the author for the Irish Heart Foundation's Action for Life program. Some of this material appears in its 'Action for Life, Action for Everybody' booklet. The author would like to highlight the role of the Irish Heart Foundation in developing this material, and in promoting the importance of physical activity for children with a disability in Ireland.

About the Author

Ruairí O'Donnell is a chartered physiotherapist from Limerick, Ireland. He has worked as a physiotherapist in neurological rehabilitation and sports medicine, and has organized sports for young people with a disability. He has also advised bodies in the sports, health, and education sectors in Ireland on issues around inclusion in sport and physical activity. In 2002-2003, he completed the European master's degree in adapted physical activity in Leuven, Belgium. At present, Ruairí is working as a physiotherapist at Rubya Hospital, Tanzania.

Summary Flowchart

Summary Flowchart of individualization of individuals with disabilities in inclusive environments and motivation levels

For more information and resources for the community of athletes with a disability, please visit NCHPAD at