The other day, when I got home from work, Max and the babysitter were playing basketball with kids on our block. They were handing Max the ball, he was grasping it with both hands (major feat!) and throwing it. It was a phenomenal sight to see him involved with other kids that way.
I've often struggled with figuring out how to get kids, both in our neighborhood and whenever we're in a play situation, to naturally include Max in games. I don't always have the answers—but Barbara Oswald, Director of Youth Initiatives & Program Development for Special Olympics South Carolina, does. She oversees that division's Project Unify, an innovative program designed to boost acceptance among students through school projects and sports for Special Olympics athletes and student volunteers. They were recently awarded a $25,000 grant by CVS Caremark Charitable Trust, one of 66 non-profits to receive $2.6 million for programs in 2013 (I'm a proud blogger ambassador for CVS Caremark All Kids Can). There are currently 42 Project Unify programs in the country, increasing to 45 in the next school year.
These are Barbara's top tips for encouraging inclusion in sports and activities:
I'm always wondering how to rope in all the kids on our block to include Max, but Barbara pointed out it would be best to focus on getting one kid onboard. As she says, "One strong-character kid can go a long way to developing a friendship." She recommends inviting one kid over for a playdate to the house, a place where your child will be at his most comfortable. "It's cool to see kids with special needs sharing their interests—and recruiting their own friends themselves," she says. "Start with one peer who becomes a friend, then add others in."
Don't make a big deal about it
"Asking another mom about a playdate is a good way to go—just say 'I would love for Jake to come over and play t-ball,'" she says. There's no need to get into why you want this, or mention things like "He really needs to have more kids without special needs in his life!" Notes Barbara, "That mom may feel like it's a lot of pressure for their kid. Just inviting that other child over to play is saying it all, no explanation necessary. It's like any mom asking for a playdate."
Find a sport that works for everyone
A child in a wheelchair could play T-ball with a friend, for instance. "Activity lowers the discomfort for the other child of not knowing what to do because they aren't regularly around kids with special needs," points out Barbara. "There is no awkward silence! It doesn't take kids long to endear themselves to each other."
Encourage kids to find a role for your child
Sports skills not being equal, "It's important for kids with special needs to have a meaningful role in the activity," says Barbara. "That may not mean be being a point guard on a basketball court, but maybe it's keeping score. There are lots of different scenarios. Once a child has friends and peers and they are comfortable with each other, that can happen very naturally. You will be amazed how kids who have developed relationships with kids who have special needs can think of ways to include them. A lot of times students come up with the best ideas for meaningful roles! That's a better relationship builder than an adult jumping in and trying to do it."
Give guidance as necessary
If kids aren't figuring out how to include your child, says Barbara, "you could make a suggestion like 'How about Max gets the balls that bounce away?' Ultimately, you want your child to feel needed and part of the game."
Focus on skills
"With Special Olympics we have individualized skill training—so with basketball, for instance, we break down the skill so they compete in skills sets, as opposed to full-court basketball," says Barbara. "A child with special needs and a peer can practice passing, or dribbling, or those sorts of things, something that can be effective for kids at all levels of abilities."
Pump up the other kid
"It's a great thing for a kid without special needs to be empowered as a coach or mentor," says Barbara. "You can say things like, 'You are a really awesome baseball player. Do you think you could work with Max on his t-ball?' That flips around how that child feels about the situation. So many kids are looking for ways to step up as a leader, and being a friend or advocate for a child is a great role for a kid. It takes confidence for a kid to take those leadership moments. I am constantly amazed by how youth without special needs are the best advocates for kids with special needs. At one school with a peer tutor program, a young man without special needs invited his friend with special needs to sit with him at the lunch table. That is a huge statement!"
Remember, inclusion benefits everyone
"A child who mentors, coaches or befriends a kid will get as much out of a child with special needs as vice versa," says Barbara. "Typically, kids with special needs teach more about the human spirit, perseverance and smiling in the face of adversity than any other population on the planet."
To find a Project Unify program and other Special Olympics activities at your local branch, visit the Special Olympics site.
This is one of a series of posts sponsored by CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a commitment to helping children of all abilities be the best they can be. Like them on Facebook!