Fun for Everyone: Adapting Activities for Campers of All Abilities

Tommy Means and Jordan McIntire
September 2017

Imagine a camp program staff is preparing an experiential game of Hawks and Squirrels to demonstrate the predator-prey relationship and role of resources in the natural environment. The campers who are squirrels scurry across the field picking up colored balls that represent food and water while the campers who are hawks tag the squirrels that can’t find the necessary resources, transforming them into hawks.

Now imagine that one of the campers uses a wheelchair. How could the activity be adapted? Maybe the facilitator provides the camper a helper to assist him through the field. Maybe a few resources are placed up on cones so he can easily reach them. The camper has been accommodated by providing him with tools or support to make the activity accessible; however, the activity has also been impacted in a way that may further isolate the camper using the wheelchair. He has special resources that only he can pick up. He is the only camper with an assistant or helper. The modifications made in an attempt to be inclusive have actually created a potential increase in disability isolation, which is a perpetual concern.

What if all the resources were placed on cones, everyone was given a buddy, and the game was played in the gym instead of the grass? The modifications now create an opportunity for all campers to participate in a way that looks almost identical while maintaining the inherent nature of the activity.

With these modifications, three key activity elements have been addressed:

  1. The person, by providing the camper with a peer to assist in pushing him or her
  2. The environment, by switching to a gym floor
  3. The activity, by placing all the resources on cones

Looking at these three aspects helps create an inclusive activity that allows all campers the opportunity to thrive.

Provided here are the basic tools needed to take inclusive programming to the next level through a user-friendly, step-by-step approach — first addressing the reason for activity modification and what it really means for a camper to be successful in an activity; next looking at what it means to maintain the inherent nature of the activity to ensure the modifications have not fundamentally altered the activity; and lastly, providing the step-by-step approach to evaluating the three key elements (activity, environment, and person) of activity modification.

Successful Participation

Crafting opportunities for successful participation in an activity goes well beyond simply providing support or additional resources to campers. Successful participation happens when a facilitator creates an environment that is wholly and seamlessly inclusive. In the opening example of the Hawks and Squirrels game, well-intentioned accommodations were made but did not necessarily translate to an inclusive environment.

Successful participation occurs when physical and psychosocial barriers are reduced or removed and the activity is intrinsically rewarding for the participants with a disability. Using modifications to ensure that the challenge of the activity matches the skill level of all participants is the key component to ensure participant success in an inclusive environment.

Answering the following questions may help in determining if the modifications have removed potential barriers.

  • Can the camper navigate through the environment safely and equally with his or her peers?
  • Are all the resources equally accessible? Does the camper have access to communication support?
  • Has the activity been normalized across all participants?

If the answer to these questions is yes, the camper has a greater chance to be successful in the activity.

Inherent Nature of the Activity

Modifying an activity is a vital component to inclusion, although it doesn’t occur without potential pitfalls. In the game of Hawks and Squirrels, a number of flawed modifications could be used. What if the collection of resources was modified to just touching them rather than having to gather them up? What if the role of the hawk was eliminated due to concerns that not all campers would be able to elude the hawks at an equal rate? What if collecting the water, food, and shelter was changed to just collecting “resources” due to concerns not all campers would cognitively understand the nature of these resources? These modifications might make a more inclusive activity for some campers, but they will also impair the inherent nature of the activity itself. Campers no longer have to understand the relationship of survival in regards to resources or predators. The activity is fundamentally altered.

How can facilitators be mindful in modifying activities to preserve their inherent nature? Adopting an approach from the field of recreational therapy, an activity analysis can be performed to evaluate the components of the activity. During an activity analysis, four distinct aspects of the activity are examined (Anderson & Heyne, 2012):

  1. Cognitive aspects
  2. Social aspects
  3. Physical aspects
  4. Emotional aspects

This organized approach identifies the inherent characteristics of the activity. It is extremely important to be aware of these characteristics prior to making modifications to increase the likelihood of maintaining the activity’s inherent nature.

Activity Modification

Within activity modification, after the elements of the activity have been identified, appropriate modifications can be pursued. The framework of this approach comes from the field of Adaptive Physical Education (APE). The Ecological Task Analysis (ETA) was originally developed to identify problems that might exist between the activity and a student’s ability to move within it and then to suggest modifications. To identify the problems, Karl Newell (1986) described a triangle of constraints as part of a continuously changing system (Davis & Broadhead, 2007):

  1. Task
  2. Context
  3. Performer

For the sake of our setting, we will view these three factors as activity, environment, and person. As a facilitator, acknowledging these factors as part of an interrelated system means that changing one factor may impact another. For example, if we change the person (i.e. working as pairs), there may be an impact on the activity itself (change in the rules about resources) and/or the environment (larger area of play).

The step-by-step evaluation of the activity begins with one of the three variables: activity, environment, or person. Next, start to look at where barriers might be encountered. Looking at the previously provided example, the resources were placed on top of cones to make the activity inclusive for everyone. In evaluating the activity, we noticed that a barrier exists for the camper in reaching for resources on the ground. Placing the balls on cones eliminated this barrier while maintaining the inherent nature of the activity.

Next, we move to environmental barriers. Is the activity indoors or outdoors? What is the playing surface like? Is the lighting adequate? Are there other sensory factors (distracting noises or images) that may impact participation? In the example provided, the game was moved from outside on grass to a gym for a more durable surface. The purpose of the activity (to learn about resource allocation and predator-prey relation) is maintained with this environmental modification. However, if part of the activity’s purpose was to learn about the habitat of the animals involved through experiencing it, then moving inside would have compromised the inherent nature.

When looking at modifications for the person, evaluate how the person interacts with the environment and/or activity. What barriers exist within the camper’s abilities that may limit successful participation? Can where the person is in relation to activity be altered? For example, in kickball, can they stand in front of the plate instead of off to the side in the batter’s box? Is assistive equipment available, such as a modified seat with back support in a raft instead of sitting on the side?

After modifying one factor, it is very important to take another look at the other factors to see if they have been impacted. These factors do not exist in a vacuum and in altering one, another may need to be adjusted. When the game of Hawks and Squirrels is modified by placing the resources on cones, do the campers still need a buddy? If the activity is further modified by increasing the number of safe zones, is the modification of participating in pairs still necessary?

The final step is to take another look at the activity as a whole, with the modifications, and determine if the inherent nature of the activity is intact. Does it still look like Hawks and Squirrels? Are the goals of the activity still attainable? Most importantly, is it still fun? If the modified activity feels too forced or unnatural, it might be time to select a new activity that has similar aspects (per the activity analysis) to the initial activity but may be more conducive to the abilities of all the campers.

While there is no right or wrong to activity modification, there are a few final considerations. Does the modification allow the camper to participate in an independent manner? Modifications that promote the highest level of independence are a key factor in successful participation. Is that activity normalized in the sense that all campers are participating in a way that looks similar? Implementing normalized modifications that promote independence within cognitive, social, physical, and emotional aspects, with consideration given to the activity, person, and environmental factors, will increase the opportunity for campers to be successful.

For more information on the Systematic Ecological Task Analysis Approach to activity modification, see the book Ecological Task Analysis and Movement by Davis and Broadhead.

For more information on Task Analysis, see the book Activities: Reality and Symbol by Fidler and Velde.


Anderson, L., & Heyne, L.A. (2012). Therapeutic recreation practice: A strengths approach. Andover, MA: Venture Publishing.

Davis, W., & Broadhead, G. (2007). Ecological task analysis and movement. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Newell, K.M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control, 34, 341–360.

Tommy Means is a Leisure Studies PhD student at Indiana University and a research assistant with Bradford Woods. Tommy is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist with practical experience in a residential behavior center and adaptive and inclusive community recreation. He has five years’ experience as a general counselor, program lead, program coordinator, and codirector at camps for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities.

Jordan McIntire is a Leisure Studies PhD student at Indiana University and the assistant director of Military and Family Programming at Bradford Woods. Jordan’s current career focus is on programming and facilitating adventure therapy programs for at-risk youth, veterans and their families, and adults and children with disabilities. Jordan also has experience doing applied behavior analysis therapy with children on the autism spectrum and has spent multiple summers working at a leadership camp.

Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods and Champ Camp at Bradford Woods, Martinsville, Indiana.