Making Sports Day fun for all pupils, including those with SEN

Written by: Jemma Ive | Published:
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Sports Day can be a daunting experience for some students with SEN. Specialist Jemma Ive offers some tips and ideas for races and activities that will ensure an inclusive event and fun for all pupils

Sports Day should be a day where everyone can join in, but unfortunately for many children with SEN this fun-filled sports day can be completely overwhelming. The noise, combined with being suddenly asked to take part in activities they do not know how to do can, for many, cause sensory and emotional overload.

Below, I have pulled together some tried and tested ideas, both adaptations to current races and new ones that are easily implemented.

A race with a difference

Try something new and instead of bean bags or spoons, have four or five items of clothing laid out one after the other, from hats and glasses to shoes and scarves. At each stage have a mirror, so the student can see themselves. I used to try this, allowing each student to pick one item at a time and look at themselves in the mirror. It was a great race that everyone enjoyed.

Practice, practice, practice

It may seem simple, but for children with SEN familiarity is key. I imagine in your forthcoming PE sessions you will be practising the different skills needed for the different races, but try and recreate what sports day will actually look and feel like with your class before it takes place. Also, if you have recordings from previous events show them footage of their peers participating in races – I have always found this really helpful.

Car race

For younger children, the plastic red and yellow Little Tikes cars are fab! It is an object that most students will be familiar with (all you need is three or four cars – I used to borrow them from parents) and it is great fun. For those students with physical impairments, staff can get involved by joining the race and pushing the students along.

Be prepared

There can be slight variations on each game but if you can get the basics engrained, it will help you greatly. Here are some twists on classic sports day games that may help you:

Hurdles become leap frogs: Use stepping stones for children to leap over or – if you are feeling brave, and with parental consent – they can even leap over each other. SEN students will find this far less daunting and fun.

Sprint race: A sprint race is a classic and although there is not a great deal you can change here, you can make it more comfortable for SEN students to take part in. Having an adult running beside them has often helped my students in the past. Also a rewarding item at the end of the race works wonders, as cheering alone may not be enough. Although remember to make it fair – all students should receive something (stickers are fantastic for this).

Wheelbarrow race: Although children using other children as their wheelbarrow is often a wonderful and amusing Sports Day game for all, for SEN children this could be sensory overload and often physically unmanageable. Use plastic children’s wheelbarrows instead and if you think this will make the race too easy, fill them with water and see who can carry the most water across the finish line.

Parachute games

There are many ways to use the parachute but one that worked well for me, which provides a competitive edge, is what I used to call Under the Sea. Place a variety of “treasures” (anything you want) into a box and place it underneath the parachute in the middle. Create waves by getting some students to lift the parachute up and down, calling out items one-by-one for your divers, aka students, to retrieve. The student with the most items wins.

The ball parachute game is a great team activity that can involve everyone. Take two parachutes, place many small balls, the kind you find in a ball pit, on top of the parachute and start making waves. Over a short period of time, see which team can keep the most balls on top of the parachute.

Give space for down time

However much fantastic planning and amazing races you put in place, ensure there is space for SEN students to have some down-time should they need it. This could be a quiet place where they could comfortably retreat to and/or a different place which allows them to go at their own pace and be creative.

I used to set aside space, on rainy days this used to be in the school hall, where I would get paddling pools filled with paint and large rolls of paper. See what patterns they can make with their hands or feet, or if you are feeling very brave, their bodies. This is also great fun for any students in wheelchairs as they can make wheel marks. Although this isn’t technically a “sport” someone could judge the artwork at the end to decide on a winner. But just be warned, although this is a great space that the kids will love, it is one that gets messy.

Involve your parents

The coronavirus restrictions might prevent your field from being surrounded by encouraging parents, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be involved. Inform your parents of the type of races their child will be taking part in and, as homework, encourage your students to practise with their family members. This is another great way to get your students familiar with the races, in the comfort of their own home.

Make team shirts

Create lots of excitement around Sports Day by letting your students get creative. Form little groups of students and task them with making team shirts. With some plain t-shirts and a little fabric paint and decorations, they can create fantastic tops, covered with positive language, signs and symbols that they or their peers can wear. Or even you. Don’t worry if you can’t source t-shirts and paints, they can create eye-catching posters or flags to wave from the sidelines.

Have fun yourself

Children will be guided by what they see. If they can see their teacher, deputy headteacher, headteacher or even breakfast club, lunchtime and after-school club staff not only taking part but having fun, they might be more inclined to join in. It is highly likely they will find it really funny too, creating an even more relaxing and enjoyable event.

Whatever your Sports Day may look like, whether it be a morning, afternoon or day of sporting activities, just remember that not all events go quite according to plan. However, as long as all pupils can take away something positive, however large or small, you can definitely class it a sporting success. It is the participation that counts – so on that note, get ready, set, have fun!

  • Jemma Ive is a former SEN teacher. She now works at Teacher Booker, helping to connect SEN schools with teachers and support staff. Teacher Booker offers impartial, confidential advice and practical solutions for schools. Visit

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