OBJECTIVES: Negative attitudes to disability among physiotherapy students in paediatric placements might be addressed by providing clinical placement opportunities for students early in their course. The aim of this qualitative research study was to explore what physiotherapy students reported learning from an innovative paediatric placement option. DESIGN: Qualitative research with in-depth interviews. PARTICIPANTS: Seventeen first and second year physiotherapy students (15 women, 2 men; mean age 19.9 (SD 1.4) years) who took part in the clinical education experience. INTERVENTIONS: The experience comprised a student-led progressive resistance training programme performed twice a week for 10 weeks at a community gymnasium with an adolescent with Down syndrome. METHODS: In-depth interviews were completed after the 10-week programme and were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and independently coded by two researchers. Data were analysed using thematic analysis. RESULTS: Two themes emerged from the data, one about being a student mentor and the second about skill development and application. The physiotherapy students indicated the programme was a challenging yet rewarding experience, and that they gained an increased appreciation of disability. They reported developing and applying a range of communication, professional and physiotherapy specific skills. CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest that the clinical experience provided physiotherapy students with opportunities to learn clinical skills, generic professional skills, and better understand disability in young people. Many of the learning outcomes identified by the participating students align with desired graduate capabilities and required professional competencies.