Field Day and Special Needs Children

Two Young Girls Running On Outdoor Track
emholk / Getty Images

On paper, it sounds like just the kind of thing we'd love schools to do—let the kids play outside for a day, all together in an inclusive group, moving their bodies and having fun together and enjoying a break from classroom cramming. For kids with special needs, though, Field Day holds more hidden challenges than the most intricate obstacle course.

Tips for a Fun Field Day for Everyone

If your child's school has a Field Day—and if you're not sure or don't think so, by all means, ask at a PTA meeting, teacher conference, or IEP get-together—be sure that someone has considered all the possible issues and made the necessary accommodations. You may find the only one thinking about this stuff is you.

Accessibility Issues

A day running and jumping and maneuvering over uneven grassy surfaces won't be so fun for kids who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids. Has someone figured out what your child will be doing on this day of frolic? If it involves sitting on the sidelines with a paraprofessional, you'll want to challenge that plan.

Ask your child's school physical therapist and adaptive gym teacher to get involved in designing events that will be doable for your child and every child, and make sure these are part of the larger festivities.

Playing ball with a paraprofessional on the sidelines isn't that much more fun than just sitting there.

Motor Issues

Even if your child is able to physically get to and around the field of play, gross motor and fine motor delays may cause some of the events to seem heartlessly inappropriate. Particularly if your child will be competing against regular education classmates, the well-intentioned folks planning Field Day may, in fact, be setting up an opportunity for kids with differences to be embarrassed, babied, and mocked over and over again.

This is another good reason to get the physical therapist and adaptive gym teacher involved in the planning and execution of Field Day so that the games don't put kids' worst foot forward and accommodations don't make them look like they can't do anything.

Food Issues

Whether Field Day involves a lunch (at my kids' school, it was usually a barbecue done by the dads) or just snacks at various stations, you'll want to be sure that all involved remember that your child's food allergies don't stay home on special occasions.

You may have informed the parents in your child's class about foods that are not safe for your student, but whole-school activities are often "catered" by a different gaggle of parents, and even well-intentioned schools can drop the ball at once-a-year events if no one is reminding them. Provide that reminder.

Check that the school nurse or whoever is in charge of your child's epinephrine injector is on the scene and ready to step in. You don't want someone to run off the field and to the office in case of emergency.

Health Issues

The nurse should also be on hand to handle all those other health issues kids deal with during a school day, including medication, insulin, inhalers, and sensitivity to heat. Daily routines go out the window for an all-day event like this, and you don't want the safeguards you've built in to go out the window with them.

Check with the teacher, nurse, principal, and parents in charge of the event to make sure these important bits of routine will be remembered, and talk with your child too about the fact that as much as they might like, there's no vacation from these requirements.

Behavior Issues

Speaking of routines going out the window, kids who depend on a predictable and structured environment to hold them together may struggle mightily with the demands of Field Day, even if they're excited about it and want very badly to participate.

Compounding the loss of landmarks throughout the day, things like waiting in line for a turn, stopping one fun activity when it's time to go to another one, accepting defeat, tolerating heat and fatigue, sitting unsupported on grass, and dealing with the disorganization that often strikes whole-school, volunteer-facilitated outings are almost guaranteed to elicit behavior problems—for which such kids may then be punished by those who don't understand.

Do what you can to make sure these issues are anticipated and planned for.

Perhaps a paraprofessional can be assigned to your child to impose some structure, defuse problems, and if necessary get your kid out of there for a little while.

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