Social opportunities for special needs tweens and teens

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Backyard activities, arts and crafts and many local kid themed establishments make it relatively easy to entertain a group of children. And parents are able to step in to assist and encourage those social interactions and proper social skills. Setting up fun, interactive social situations for teens is more of a challenge. Adolescents begin to form peer groups based on similar interests. Also, they do not want Mom or Dad hanging out and offering advice when their friends are near. Plan high interest events for special needs tweens and teens.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


Here are suggestions for teen friendly events:

This classic activity is great for groups allowing everyone to cheer on the bowler. Plus it has built in down time for engaging in conversation.  Many bowling establishments include an arcade if someone needs to take a break from the group.

Catapult build
Teens will get competitive building a catapult and seeing whose catapult will throw the longest.  If you are an enterprising parent with a large field nearby, build a large-scale trebuchet and have teens take turns using it.  It’s also a great way to work some physics learning into your activity. Here are more fun science activities you might try with a group of teens.

Cooking night
Get the group together to make their own pizza, decorate cupcakes or other food items. If you have teens that need extra visual support, here are a bunch of picture recipes.

Geocachinghaunted house
Geocaching is a treasure hunt using GPS tracking.  There are geocaches in every state and probably in your area.  This is a fun activity for those that like maps or the outdoors. Everyone can take a turn leading the group with the GPS.

Glow in the dark party
Set up a glow in the dark themed party indoors or outdoors.  It’s a fun sensory experience too.  Teens also may be into glow in the dark egg hunts if you have a large field. Here's a list of glow in the dark activities.

Halloween haunt
Your teens may be too old to trick or treat, but they’re just the right age to scare the neighborhood kids.  Challenge the teens to be actors for a haunted garage haunt.  Staple black plastic along the walls of your garage and have the group get creative with props. Remember, the idea is not to set up a bunch of rules, but to encourage the teens to have fun with each other and the guests walking through your haunt.

Hang out night
Encourage some unstructured time with the group.  Have a few movie choices, order pizza and keep some games handy (eg. Board games, air hockey).  Parents can check in and see how the group is interacting with one another.  See if your teen favors another in the group.  You can encourage further social situations with that teen.

Hotel hang out
More hotels and resorts are catering to teens.  Teen nightclubs, cabana rooms at the pool and more.  Check your area hotels to see what might be available for a group of teens wanting to hang out and have fun. Have extra parents on hand to chaperone.

Laser tag
Laser tag allows for social time before and after the game.  During the game, teens can focus their energy taking down their opponents. Parents can encourage the group to create teams of two or more that must work together.

Miniature golfmovie night One Place for Special Needs
Not everyone has fantastic visual motor skills.  Emphasize silly and fun shots rather than scorekeeping.  Everyone can have fun and teens can practice their conversation skills while they are waiting for the next round.

Movie night
Movie nights at your local theater are good for teens that have difficulty having conversations with their peers.  This event allows a little social interaction in the beginning followed by a shared movie watching experience.  Teens can talk about their favorite movie scene after the show. Here are resources about going to the movie theater including social stories and manners at the movie theater.

Your teens may have outgrown the children's museum, but they will still be interested in museums with interactive science exhibits. Have extra parents on hand to chaperone. Parents can facilitate conversation with teens regarding the how and why of each exhibit.

Nerf shooting
Teens have not outgrown Nerf shooters.  If you have a large yard or field, set up some cardboard hiding spots and let the teens loose.  An alternative is making marshmallow shooters.  These are pretty cheap to make and marshmallows can shoot up to 50 feet.  Set up targets for teens to shoot for added fun. If you have two teams, you can emphasize team work and nonverbal commands during the game.

Outdoor leisure sports
Set up a bunch of outdoor games like lawn bowling, bag toss or old-fashioned carnival type games.  Emphasize the fun rather than competition. Here are some ideas for backyard games. This event emphasizes taking turns and staying involved in a game, even if you may not be interested in it. You can also encourage the group to offer compliments like, "Good job" or "Nice try."

Outdoor movie night
It’s fun to watch a movie outdoors.  Throw a sheet up on your wall and make some popcorn. A fun activity for teens. Keep this unstructured. Let teens talk and interact with one another while the movie is playing.

For teens who love laser tag, the next step may be a visit to a paintball field.  Make sure that teens are dressed appropriately for getting hit by paintballs. Teens should be aware that getting hit by a paintball can sting or create a welt. Extra parent chaperones should be on hand. The goal of this event is team work and using nonverbal commands while on the field.

Retro nightrope course One Place for Special Needs
Blow your teens minds by pulling out an old game system.  Nintendo 64 anyone?  Or dust off that old turn table and introduce the group to vinyl records or 8 track tapes. Try to facilitate the group to ask questions about how the technology works and facts about that time period.

Ropes/climbing course
Check your area to see if there are any ropes or climbing wall facilities in your area. Be aware that ropes courses are easier to do. Climbing walls rely on upper body strength.  Some fitness center or big amusement facilities may offer these activities. This event will depend on the abilities of your teens. Goals for this event can be following directions and offering positive feedback to group members.

Scavenger hunt
Teens still enjoy this game that sets them out into the neighborhood in two or more groups.  You can set up a scavenger sheet of items to collect.  A fun variation is the trade up hunt.  Each team starts with a quarter to trade.  Whatever item they receive for that quarter they offer to the next house, trading up for larger or more expensive items.  Whichever team comes back with the best item, wins.  For this event, teens must communicate their needs to others. Here's our list of scavenger hunt ideas.

Special interests
Find out the teens’ special interests.  You might find you have a small group of teens who would be happy train spotting at the local train station.  These activities may not be typical for the average teen, but a lot of fun for your group. It will also generate more conversation between the teens because it is of high interest to them.  Foster those friendships and activites.

Trampoline parks
These are gym facilities that are all about trampolines and foam pits.  It’s a fun place for teens that are not sports inclined to have fun and get in some exercise.

Swap night
Come up with a swap theme such as video games, books or DVDs.  It gets the teens talking about their items and encouraging a swap.  Parents can introduce the polite way to turn down or ask for an item.

Video game night
If you have a group of teens that like Halo or Call of Duty, offer a game night.  Have a Wii sports or Rock Band tournament.  Make sure rules are established so everyone gets a turn playing.

Volunteerroller coaster One Place for Special Needs
There are many volunteering opportunities in your neighborhood.  Research some and see if a group of teens can take part.  This is another event that challenges teens to listen and follow directions. Plan a lunch or dinner outing afterwards to reward everyone for their good work.

Water park or theme park
Get some chaperones together and organize a day at the area water park or theme park. Allow the group to work together on which attractions they will go to and when to break for lunch or a snack.

More reading:

Parent run middle school social group - How to implement a social group for tweens and teens

Family quality time - Ideas for creating quality familly time


Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local, events and families in your neighborhood plus thousands and thousands of online resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families in Illinois. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs

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