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Sports for Kids with Special Needs

Programs that let your child get into the game

Eighteen-year-old Zach Steger loves basketball. But shooting hoops and dribbling down the court looks a bit different for him. The Richardson teen has spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair. “[His] ability to compete and be part of a team has given [Zach] a real sense of independence that kids with special needs often don’t get,” says his mom Tracey Steger.

Now Zach plays for the varsity team of the Dallas Jr. Wheelchair Mavericks Basketball league and competes in Paralympic track and field events. But kids don’t need to play on competitive leagues to reap the confidence-boosting benefits of playing sports. Studies show that kids with special needs who play sports or engage in recreational activities are more confident, have better overall fitness and experience an enhanced feeling of well-being.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is teeming with adaptive sports programs to get kids with special needs off the sidelines. We’ve included a few that offer spring programs and classes now.

But before enrolling your child, schedule a doctor’s visit to ensure your kid is healthy enough to participate. Then meet with your child’s coach or instructor to help him or her understand your child’s disability, strengths and limitations and the best way to communicate with your child.


The Buddy League is open to all kids ages 3 and older with mental or physical disabilities. Each player is placed on a team based on age and is paired with an able-bodied  “buddy,” a volunteer age 8 or older who helps their teammate whatever they need — hitting the ball off a tee, running the bases (even in a wheelchair) and providing emotional encouragement. Camaraderie, not competition, is key, so teams don’t have practices and play six 60-minute games that are less about foul balls and strikeouts and more about hits and home runs. Games take place at Bradfield Park in Garland from April–June. Online registration begins in February. All equipment is provided.
Cost: $10 per family covers both spring and fall sessions (financial assistance is available); registration fee includes team T-shirt and a trophy.
Garland, 972/414-9280

Register little leaguers ages 3 and older with any type of special need and level of experience to be part of The Miracle League of DFW (there are also locations in Southlake and Irving). Roughly 350 athletes — paired with volunteers ages 12 and older — are split into teams in the minor, major or competitive leagues based on age and ability. All players work on hand-eye coordination and improve social skills, self-confidence and sportsmanship. Athletes in the minor and major leagues meet weekly for relaxed games that help players progress at their own pace using aids like baseball tees. Those in the competitive league are generally older with more developed skills. They have weekly practices and hit balls pitched underhand by coaches. Games are played on select Saturdays at Randol Mills Park in Arlington. Register online in February for the spring session, which begins the first week of March. Jerseys, hats and equipment is provided.
Cost: Free; $30 late registration fee.
Arlington, 817/501-1942


Tumblers ages 3 and older jump on trampolines, walk on beams, swing on ropes, rings and bars and complete padded obstacle course challenges in Palla’s Movement Class at The Palaestra. The 50-minute group class combines kiddos with all types of mental disabilities and most types of physical disabilities (the class is not recommended for those in wheelchairs) and breaks down complex moves into simpler steps to teach gymnasts balance, agility, motor skills, how to follow directions, problem solving, sequencing, organizational behavior like taking turns and confidence. Weekly Thursday classes meet from 4:30–5:20pm. Register online or by phone.
Cost: $80 per month.
Farmers Branch, 972/620-9922

In addition to gymnastics, Special Needs Gymnastics actually offers classes in cycling and life skills, plus teaches the throwing-and-catching basics for sports like basketball, football and baseball. Denise Anderson, the founder and president, provides classes for kids of all ages with any physical or mental disabilities. In gymnastics classes, she starts by getting kids on the trampoline, which is easier on the joints and better for learning things like rolls. She may then take the class to do exercises on the bar to work fine motor skills, move to the beam to improve balance and play with hula hoops for practice with coordination and spatial awareness. That’s all followed by stretching and games that help develop social skills. Call to register.
Cost: $70 per month, plus $70 registration fee; six months for $390 and no registration fee; or $719 for a year with no registration fee.
Haltom City and Plano, 806/438-3227


Fencing develops fine motor skills and teaches self-discipline. School-age kids with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and other disabilities that confine them to a wheelchair participate in beginner and intermediate fencing classes at the Fencing Institute of Texas. Kids first learn to control their foil, epee or sabre sword (most beginners start with the foil). Fencers’ legs are strapped into wheelchairs that are modified for stability so they’re less likely to tip, and those who are unable to grip the sword bind the weapon to their hand using a bandage. Instructors tailor techniques to individual abilities, and fencers gain practice against both wheelchair-bound and able-bodied opponents. Weekly classes meet Saturdays from 2–3pm; all fencing materials are provided. Register online.
Cost: $180 per month.
Carrollton, 972/242-0399


The special abilities class at Keller ATA Martial Arts helps teach self-confidence, discipline and how to accomplish goals, to kids of all ages and abilities through taekwondo. Instructors modify moves as needed. A child in a wheelchair, who doesn’t have the use of his legs, uses his hands to mimic a front or side kick, for instance. During the 45-minute, twice weekly lessons, all kids work with weapons such as nunchucks or a combat stick to improve hand-eye coordination; learn when to use their moves; and work through challenging situations like bullying. Call to register. Try the first class, which meets Tuesday and Thursday at 4:15pm, for free.
Cost: The current special running through at least the end of February: $30 for four weeks of unlimited classes, plus a free uniform; otherwise, $115 for a month of unlimited classes, plus a uniform.
Keller, 817/337-9493


Equest helps kids with special physical, cognitive or emotional needs learn to ride horses, which helps increase concentration, strengthen core muscles, improve balance and posture and establish a positive emotional bond between rider and horse, instructor and volunteer (adults who walk alongside the rider). Equest offers hippotherapy, a technique led by a licensed physical, occupational or speech therapist that uses the rhythmic, repetitive saunter of the horse to improve muscle tone, sensory processing and other functions in kiddos ages 2 and older. All kids age 4 and older take therapeutic horsemanship classes, which focus more on the physical activity of horseback riding. Those requiring more assistance are paired with volunteers (one to lead the horse and two to walk on either side); more advanced kiddos ride — and even jump — alone. Choose 45-minute private or semi-private classes (two kids) or hourlong group lessons (up to five riders). Registration for 11-week spring sessions begins January 27. Register online. Financial assistance is available.
Cost: One-time registration fee, $50; spring session group classes, $550; semi-private lessons, $660; private lessons, $715.
Texas Horse Park, Dallas, 972/412-1099
Wylie Center, Wylie, 972/412-1099

Kids ages 4 and older receive one-on-one lessons from a trained horseback riding instructor (a parent or caregiver participates and acts as an assistant) at Amy’s Wish With Wings. As riders move through the personalized step-by-step program, they learn to follow instructions, to sequence tasks, to stay on task, to overcome challenges and to empathize. They also gain self-confidence by accomplishing small goals (like trotting on their own). Kids develop gross and fine motor skills and life skills too by riding on sensory trails that include letter and number stations and a ride-through tunnel. Choose the 21-week winter session from Jan. 2–June 3, the six-week session from Jan 2.–Feb. 11 or the 15-week spring session from Feb. 13–June 3. Register online.
Cost: $50 per session; available in six-, 15- or 21-week packages.
Southlake, 817/999-8332


“Every child deserves the chance to play.” This is the motto that drives Miracle League of Frisco. That’s why the special needs sports organization offers football, cheerleading, baseball, soccer, track and field, bowling and basketball leagues for kids ages 5–19 with mental and physical disabilities. Sign up for regular, unified or wheelchair/walker leagues. In regular leagues, kids are matched with buddies (volunteers) who provide hand-over-hand physical prompting or just verbal reminders to run, for instance. Athletes in the unified leagues are typically older, have a good understanding of the game and can play without buddies. This month, join soccer and be placed on a team of 8–12 players based on ability and age. Six Saturday games take place at the indoor FieldHouse USA between Feb. 25–April 8. Register online.
Frisco, 214/295-6411

This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of DFWThrive.