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Athletic Opportunities for Kids with Special Needs

Today there are lots of opportunities and programs for children with special needs or disabilities to participate in sports and recreation.

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Whether through specialized programs and equipment or simple modifications for integration, these local leagues, organizations, and businesses are helping kids of all ages and abilities learn valuable sports skills. In the process, they’re developing confidence, sharpening their ability to work on a team, and nurturing a sense of adventure that will serve them for years to come.

Adventure

Wilderness on Wheels

If you’re a parent to a child with special needs, then you already know that accessing Colorado’s spectacular trail system can be a challenge. The Wilderness on Wheels Foundation has been providing greater access to adventure sports for over three decades. Head to Grant, Colorado, to take in picturesque mountainside views while rolling and strolling along an 8-foot-wide, mile-long boardwalk that gradually rises to 9,000 feet. Another access-friendly path meanders along the bank of a Rocky Mountain trout stream. There are 13 campsites, five huts, and two cabins on site; reserve your lodging in advance. The site is operational from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October, and serves as a seasonal venue for special needs events.

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Jellystone Park at Larkspur

If camping with no activity-planning stress sounds good to you and the kiddos, take your goodly bunch to this newly-renovated 100-acre resort offering RV, tent, and cabin lodging (pick Ranger Smith cabins with a ramp). Find a restaurant, zero-entry waterpark, paved mini golf course, arts and crafts, and more right on the campgrounds easily accessible from I-25. Savor some s’mores at your own fire pit in the evening and tuck into bed or a sleeping bag after a satisfying day.

Camping at State Parks

There are 27 state park campgrounds in Colorado that cite accessible camp areas. To find the sites in parks across Colorado, visit the State Park camping site and click on the campsite maps. Read more about campsites and amenities (such as accessible fishing docks) here.

All-Around Sports

Adaptive Adventures

Improve quality of life for children, adults, and veterans with physical disabilities and their families, this nationally-reaching but locally-based group provides programs in all kinds of sports. These include camps and clinics in cycling, climbing, kayaking, paddleboarding, skiing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, scuba, rafting and dragon boat racing. Adaptive Adventures travels the country with trailers filled with adaptive equipment providing programs to 30 states, collaborating with over 150 community partners. Find a list of programs and calendar of events online.

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center

Throughout the year BOEC’s programs help athletes strengthen communication, emphasize their abilities, challenge themselves, and have a good time. Skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing are offered in the winter; camping, rafting, rock climbing, high ropes, canoeing, and kayaking are available in summer programs. BOEC also offers retreats for individuals and custom group programs to anyone with any type of disability.

Challenge Aspen

Throughout the year BOEC’s programs help athletes strengthen communication, emphasize their abilities, challenge themselves, and have a good time. Skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing are offered in the winter; camping, rafting, rock climbing, high ropes, canoeing, and kayaking are available in summer programs. BOEC also offers retreats for individuals and custom group programs to anyone with any type of disability.

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National Sports Center for the Disabled

Throughout the year BOEC’s programs help athletes strengthen communication, emphasize their abilities, challenge themselves, and have a good time. Skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing are offered in the winter; camping, rafting, rock climbing, high ropes, canoeing, and kayaking are available in summer programs. BOEC also offers retreats for individuals and custom group programs to anyone with any type of disability.

Dance

Colorado Ballet Adaptive Dance

Colorado Ballet’s adaptive dance program partners with schools, recreation centers, hospitals, day programs, and other community venues to create programs specific for people in the community. See online for details about a variety of adapted workshops and after school programs. For questions concerning accessibility or adaptive programming, contact the Education Accessibility Coordinator, Bridget Heddens at bridget.heddens@coloradoballet.org.

Colorado Conservatory of Dance Adaptive Dance Program

Ballet Expressions provides children (age six and up) of all abilities with a therapeutic dance experience that helps them with body awareness, motor skill functioning, confidence, focus, and expression. Taught by Heather Sutton, a registered dance/movement therapist, classes last 30 to 45 minutes with a season that runs through the traditional school year. Each May, students are invited to participate in a year-end Gala celebration held at Colorado Conservatory of Dance.

Fencing

Denver Fencing Center Parafencing

Parafencing (short for “parallel fencing”) is the competitive version of fencing for athletes of various abilities. Participants do not have to be full-time wheelchair users in order to participate; many parafencers have medical conditions such as limb loss, difference in leg length, or impaired muscle power. Denver Fencing Center offers instruction to newbies and current athletes, and all equipment is provided for beginners. Try your hand at foil, sabre, and/or epee sword sparring.

Gymnastics

Gymtegrity

Hit the floor, traverse the beam, fly over the vault, and swing from the bars at this gymnastics center. Gymtegrity prides itself on showing gymnastics can be for everyone, from tiny tots to competitive gymnasts and people of all abilities. Their recreational program includes classes in artistic, ninja, and cheer/acro styles. Committed athletes can also check out the competitive programs. Enjoy gym time, arts and crafts, puzzles and games, relay races, and more during school break camps. Parents of kids with special needs are welcome to contact the gym to discuss all options for full program integration in addition to a trial class prior to camp.

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Parallel Play

Activities common in gymnastics such as rolling, climbing, balance beam, and swinging help kids learn strength, endurance, confidence and self-regulation skills. Parallel Play offers one-on-one classes with an occupational therapist and gymnast competitor/coach. Sessions are hosted at Bounce in Stanley Marketplace.

Peak Athletics Gymnastics and Cheer

One of Peak’s owners and co-founder, Julie Zecchino, started the Peak Cheer Stars team for athletes with special needs after having been inspired by her daughter’s love for the sport grow; she wanted to give her the chance to participate alongside typically-abled peers. Coaches are trained by Special Olympics and cater to the needs of athletes individually. Volunteers from Peak’s Elite Competitive Cheer and Dance teams also assist and provide an integrated experience. Peak also offers a Stars dance team, and tumbling and dance classes.

Hockey

Colorado Springs Tigers Sled Hockey

Open to anyone with physical or developmental disabilities over the age of seven years old, this program makes the rough and tough ice sport accessible through specially designed sleds equipped with two hockey skate blades. Players sit and have two hockey sticks that have metal picks on one end so they can propel themselves. Seasons begin in December and end in March.

Horseback Riding

Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center

This southeast Longmont organization, claiming to be the oldest and largest therapeutic riding center in Colorado, serves children and adults with disabilities. Riders enjoy Therapeutic Riding and Hippotherapy, the “purposeful manipulation of equine movement as a therapy tool to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to promote functional outcomes,” according to the American Hippotherapy Association. Six to 11 week sessions are available throughout the year with options for group or private classes. Participants must be at least two-and-a-half years old to enroll in Equine Assisted Therapy and at least four years old to enroll in any other equine assisted activities.

Promise Ranch Therapies and Recreation

Promise Ranch’s Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) include hippotherapy, adaptive riding, carriage driving, interactive vaulting, and equine facilitated learning; while their Outpatient Occupational Therapies program offers Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, and Counseling services through target individual and group treatment for preschool, homeschool, after-school, teens, adults, and families. A special group for teens and young adults called Ground School with Horses focuses on learning horse behavior and psychology; this is open to folks with Autism, Down Syndrome, learning disabilities, anxiety, seizure disorder, and cancer. Sessions are offered year-round (with weeklong breaks for the horses).

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Olympic Sports and Competition

Special Olympics Colorado

Special Olympics Colorado improves lives through sports with more than 400 annual activities and events for athletes age two and up. The organization provides training and competition opportunities in 21 sports including volleyball, flag football, basketball, softball, golf, speed and figure skating, powerlifting, tennis, and swimming. Prior to competitions, all Special Olympics Colorado participants get a chance to engage in an extensive sports training program that teaches age-appropriate skills, rules, and strategy. Training and competition schedules are broken down into four seasons, and all programming is free for participating families.

Recreation and Leisure Sports

Achilles International-Colorado

Achilles empowers folks with disabilities to put one foot, wheel, or blade in front of the other. The running/walking groups (of which Colorado has three: Boulder, Denver, and Pikes Peak) partner able-bodied runners with physically or otherwise challenged athletes. Achilles Kids offers a school-based program throughout the nation to meet needs of children with disabilities. Contact Karen at (212) 354-0300, ext. 305 for information on local programs or starting your own.

Adaptive Recreation for Childhood Health

This program is rooted entirely in sports and outdoor recreation. Though it originally launched as a skiing program, ARCH now sponsors a range of year-round athletics crafted specifically for children, teens, and young adults with physical conditions including cancer, amputations, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and head and spinal cord injuries. Athletes can develop their skills in tennis, golf, sailing, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, and biking with trained instructors who are focused on bolstering individual ability in a positive and safe environment.

Adaptive Recreation & Inclusion Services (A.R.I.S.E.)

This program out of Aurora offers a variety of adaptive recreation programming specifically for folks with disabilities including arts and culture, aquatics, excursions, sports/fitness, Special Olympics and special events. Individuals of all ages and abilities can also participate in programs together with the help of inclusion aide services (available by request).

EXPAND Program

All programming offered through Boulder Parks & Recreation is available to everyone, regardless of whether an accommodation is needed. If you register your child for a class or activity, EXPAND will provide support. Through its peer-mentor program, EXPAND pairs folks with disabilities with mentors ages 14 to 18 who are there to create a more inclusive environment across youth programs. Specialized programs are offered, too. With a low staff-to-student ratio, youth with disabilities develop skills in the areas of sports, fitness, leisure, and aquatics. For summertime adventure, try Camp Amico or Outdoor Adventure Camp, the latter of which is geared toward elementary age children with a mental health diagnosis or behavioral issues.

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Highlands Ranch Therapeutic Recreation

Find programs in taekwondo, hip hop, yoga, basketball, swimming, indoor soccer, and social clubs throughout the year held at Highlands Ranch recreation centers. Participants find themselves challenged and supported in their general independence, choice, self-determination, and self-confidence.

South Suburban Therapeutic Adaptive Recreation

The STAR program with South Suburban Recreation offers special classes and a one-to-one inclusion instructor to accompany participants. Jump in on basketball, bowling, crafts, music and dance, karate, and social events.

Rock Climbing

Paradox Sports

Founded in 2007, this Boulder-based nonprofit is all about helping youth and adults with disabilities engage with our local climbing community. Paradox Sports offers multiple levels of training for climbers of all skill levels. They also host climbing trips and the Front Range Adaptive Climbing Club, which meets three times a month and is open to all ability levels.

Sailing

Adaptive Sailing Program

Sailing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado, but Community Sailing of Colorado holds adaptive sailing clinics and programs for all abilities. Looking to test the waters before committing to a camp or class? Families can try a free clinic in June, July, and August at Cherry Creek Reservoir or Boulder Reservoir (check the website for dates).

Soccer

TOPSoccer

The nine TOPSoccer programs in Colorado focus on player participation and development to bring children with cognitive, developmental, and physical disabilities a chance to experience one of the world’s most popular sports. Players, age five and older, are placed on teams according to ability, rather than age, and participate in a modified version of the game of soccer. Each player is paired with a buddy who is not disabled, and who stays with the player every step of the way, learns to anticipate their needs, and encourages the player to participate at their own pace. While kids are engaging with the team and improving social skills and fitness, parents connect with other families helping both child and parent build community.

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Swimming, Diving

A-1 Scuba & Travel Aquatics Center

This Aquatics Center and Craig Hospital have teamed up to provide a “Try Scuba Diving” experience specifically for people with disabilities including spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, blindness, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, amputation, PTSD, and others. Trained professionals and volunteers assist to make the deep water experience safe and enjoyable. Divers must be at least 10 years old. The adaptive “Try Scuba” experience is free for those who qualify. It includes diving in the on-site heated pool, use of diving equipment, and one hour of instruction.

Parker Parks and Recreation

Parker’s Therapeutic Recreation Program is making a big splash with adaptive learn-to-swim and stroke technique lessons for swimmers of all ages and experience levels. Thirty-minute adaptive swim lessons cater to small groups and individuals, and will help athletes with disabilities improve their strokes. Once water-loving kids are comfortable in lessons, they can join the free Special Olympics Swim Team. One-on-one Aquatic Therapy Training sessions are available, too, and use water as a way of coping with disabilities. Parker Parks and Recreation offers scholarship assistance to individuals or groups with disabilities.

SafeSplash Swim School

Prior to jumping into the warm, indoor pool water and starting swim lessons at SafeSplash, an instructor meets individually with families to assess the goals of the student. From the meeting, SafeSplash develops a lesson plan based on the student’s capabilities and matches the appropriate instructor and student. Private or semi-private lessons accommodate students of all ages with a wide range of special needs, including autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and sensory integration disorder.

Winter Sports

Ignite Adaptive Sports

Ski (alpine and cross-country), snowboard, snowshoe, and ski bike with full and half-day lessons January through March. Outdoor sports enthusiasts of all ages and ability levels are welcome to take part in this nationally recognized program. Participants’ disabilities tend to be autism, cerebral palsy, missing limbs, paralysis, visual impairments, and post-traumatic stress disorder, with many experiencing more than one type of disability.

Yoga

Cambio Yoga

Accessibility goes beyond the physical; Cambio Yoga recognizes there’s often financial barriers to participating in yoga regularly as well. They offer classes on a donation/pay-what-you-can basis for a variety of ages and needs, from Little Kids Yoga to Adaptive Yoga (for those with physical disability or impaired mobility). Their accessible studio is based in Colorado Springs but currently offer live stream and on demand virtual options.

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Recreation Rx Adaptive Groups

For parents, therapists, professionals, teachers, and yoga teachers. These adaptive group classes specialize in youth ages four to 19 with autism, sensory processing challenges, anxiety, high and low energies, “behavioral challenges,” and ADHD diagnoses. Sessions will be held Sunday afternoons and at different locations depending on the season. Contact Danielle to get on the email newsletter and learn more: (720) 750-2553, danielle@myrecrx.com.

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