Compassionate Care

Wellness in Action

With recreational therapy, kids discover the possibilities

From archery to wheelchair basketball, there are more activities for children with disabilities than ever before. Shriners Hospitals for Children offers patients the opportunity to participate in a wide range of options, helping them have fun, gain confidence, learn about physical fitness and discover limitless possibilities. Throughout the health care system, our patients are getting active and proving that anything is possible.

Paddling toward success

A patient explores the open water on a WASUP board. 

The WASUP (Wheelchair Adaptive Stand-Up Paddling) initiative at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Honolulu allows kids with disabilities, including those who have difficulties with balance or require assistance paddling, the opportunity to get out on the water and enjoy what was previously impossible: paddling a board from a wheelchair.

WASUP participants often encounter marine life while on their WASUP Board™. “I had so much fun!” said a 7-year-old patient. “I saw turtles and fish, and I didn’t want to stop!” Initiated in September 2016, the program is a collaboration between Shriners Hospitals for Children — Honolulu and the Adaptive Freedom Foundation. Hospital recreation therapy staff plan the activities and transport patients to nearby Ala Moana Beach Park, while Adaptive Freedom Foundation brings the equipment and trains staff.

For many patients, getting into the water can be difficult. WASUP provides an experience they will never forget while introducing them to a new way of staying fit and living well. “Stand-up paddleboarding has grown into a popular ocean sport for many, so we wanted to ensure that our patients get the opportunity to do it, too,” said Helene Freni-Rogers, recreation therapy manager. “Seeing their smiles while on the water is priceless.”

Going with the FLOW

Noah gets a scuba lesson. 

Recreational therapy at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago provides year-round FLOW (Friendship, Leisure, Opportunity and Wellness) programming, including indoor and outdoor golf, horseback riding, archery, adaptive waterskiing, wheelchair basketball and even opportunities to try scuba. The activities provide physical, social and emotional benefits. “When our patients sign up for various recreational events, they meet new people who like what they like and hopefully make new friends along the way,” said Darlene Kelly, director of recreational therapy/child life at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago.

Noah, 9, participates in many programs, including adaptive scuba, which is hosted in the indoor therapy pool in partnership with the Illinois Institute of Diving. Noah’s mom, Leah, said Noah feels like herself at Shriners Hospitals. “I think the biggest difference for her is that when she goes to Shriners, she’s not different,” said Leah. “Nobody looks at her, nobody is like, ‘Wait for Noah.’ They seamlessly make accommodations for her without her feeling like she is lacking in any sort of way. They make her feel just as able as any other kid.

Programs on the Move

Recreational therapy programs are offered throughout our health care system. Here are some highlights:

  • Erie, Pennsylvania: The Erie Adaptive Sailing Experience (EASE) offers youth with disabilities the opportunity to sail independently using specially designed access dinghies. The Erie location is also home to the Mighty Otters sled hockey team, which started in 1997. Sled hockey follows regular ice hockey rules, but the players are seated on specially designed adaptive sleds.
  • Northern California: Complete with eight weekly fitness sessions, the BikeFit exercise program is organized by the rehabilitation team in partnership with the motion analysis center. Patients ages 5 to 18 who want to improve their fitness and function are invited to join. BikeFit participants are fitted with an adaptive cycle, which they can take home after successfully completing the program.
  • St. Louis, Missouri: After identifying a need for aquatic activity for limb-lengthening and reconstruction patients, Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis initiated an aquatic therapy program at a local YMCA. Patients using external fixators receive specialized swimming services year-round in an indoor pool, getting the chance to exercise and have fun.
  • Springfield, Massachusetts: Specifically designed for patients ages 5 to 21 with a neuromuscular condition, such as cerebral palsy, the Bfit program offers two individualized power training exercise programs that are designed to help improve strength and function. One is an exercise-based program and the other emphasizes cycling.


Kids socialize and make progress in the play groups at the Salt Lake City Shriners Hospital.

Making strides through play groups

When 2-year-old Annika first arrived at the spina bifida play group at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City, she was incredibly shy and didn’t talk to anyone. But her eyes widened as she observed kids getting out of their wheelchairs on their own, moving around and interacting with each other, as kids do.

When Annika got home from the hour-long therapy play group, her mom, Jennifer, was shocked to see Annika try things she never had before, like getting out of her wheelchair and trying the stairs.

One day, as they prepared to leave for play group, Annika said, “Mom, I’m going to Shriners, and we all crawl.” Jennifer has found the program to be extremely beneficial. “We love play group because it gives her a chance to be with kids who are like her, which she doesn’t get on a day-to-day basis,” she said. Recreation Therapist Laura Lewis-Hollingshead started the therapeutic play groups in 2014 in collaboration with the physical therapy staff.

By putting the kids in groups of similar age and diagnosis, the kids learn from each other and form strong social bonds. “We’re not limited to just the physical goals. We actually broaden those to psychosocial goals, as well,” Lewis-Hollingshead said. “We focus on ways that these kids can interact and create friendships.”

And, she noted, those friendships are not limited to the patients. “They extend to the parents, too. We create this support network, and that ties into the child’s wellness.”