Tuesday, May 28, 2013

8 ways to include kids with special needs in sports and other activities

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:

Think small
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!


  1. Thank you for your article. My 4 year old son, Gabriel, was recently denied into a casual hip hop/acro non-recital, 4 time class @Dance With Me, Bayonne. He would be great- the ONLY accommodation would be for me to be in the class to keep him focused/centered. I was told they could not make that accommodation at all.

    1. I was so sorry to read this here and on Facebook. It's a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is wrong with people?!

  2. I agree with all of this. Especially the part about not making a big deal about it. One of the things I dislike about today's culture is making a big deal out of things. It is awesome that a child with, say, downs makes a basket in a game. Congrats to the kid for sure but it should not make the front five on Yahoo, it should be the norm and then we don't need to make it a huge deal. Make sense?

    1. I completely agree. Like everyone needs recognition for the nice thing they did- as if it's a charity case. Drives me crazy. Do something nice out of the kindness of your heart, not for the praise and attention it will get you.

      I commented below about growing up with a best friend who has special needs. It always made us VERY uncomfortable when people insinuated that I was doing a 'good deed' by being friends with her. I wasn't doing it for credit! She was my friend. It's hard on the dynamics of a friendship to paint one kid as the do-gooder and the other as needing charity to have a friend (as opposed to being worthy of friendship).

      This mentality continues today. She was the maid of honor at my wedding and people actually had the gall to come up to me and say, "It was so nice of you to include (name of my friend)." To which I responded, "We've been best friends since we were 10 years old, who else would I have asked to be the maid of honor?"

      Still hard on our friendship- especially now that the differences between us seem magnified as adults.

    2. Peter, I could not agree more, and a half-written post on that very topic. Momma PhD, that thinking make me grit my teeth, too. I get another version of that when people act like I am some sort of saint for being Max's mom.

  3. "One strong-character kid can go a long way to developing a friendship."

    I can attest to this. I was the one strong-character kid- and am still BFFs with the special needs kid who grew into an awesome special needs adult. We were 10 and 12 when we met in 5th grade. We're both in out mid-30s now.

    I also second the idea of letting the kids do it themselves. The biggest hurdle in our friendship was parents/teachers/aids butting in. We were just friends, but adults around us tried to put me in a babysitter/caregiver role. That's not what I wanted, it's not what my friend wanted (or needed). We may not have been exactly peers (especially as we got older and the differences between us more obvious), but we were friends and did best left alone to find our own dynamic and shared activities.

    1. It's great to have your perspective here! I am going to butt OUT of Max's playdates.

  4. I can relate to the find a role tip I was always the umpire in cricket matches growing up.

  5. All of these suggestions would work for kids without disabilities, who, for whatever reason, don't have good friend-making skills. Or maybe they don't dress the right way, or have the right kind of haircut, or the right kind of shoes, or are just awkward. Teachers sometimes call them the FLKs, Funny Looking Kids. I've seen them grow out of it by having just one kid take them under their wing and befriend them, thus showing the other kids that the FLK has value, too.

    I once watched a popular student pull a loner aside and whisper "kids would like you more if you stopped picking your nose so much." It was a really small thing, and I'm sure hard to say and hard to hear, but it made a difference to both of them, and they eventually became friends.

  6. I'm in beginning band. My band director is awesome. I was nominated Cadet Band Player of the Year. Everyone in band likes me except for a crazy trumpet player that blasts me with his instrument and hisses at me. When the there were three trumpets, two clarinets, and me playing in the small practice room, my band director asked me if I was okay. I said yes and played well.

  7. Beginning band

    1. Music is a foreign concept before you learn it.
    2. Everyone is just starting.
    3. Instruments are good for fine motor.
    4. You learn social skills within your section.

  8. Hello to everyone on this beautiful blog.
    I am not a mother, let alone a mother of a special needs child, but I've been reading this blog all morning because the subject is an important one to me.
    When I was a little kid I was lucky enough to have a close friendship with a non-special-needs girl, who had the strongest character and biggest heart of anyone I've ever met in the 20 years since. She encouraged me to accept and play with the special needs kids in our school. We got made fun of a lot, but we all got together in our little mixed group of kids of all levels, and we'd play tetherball and help each other on the playground equipment every single day.
    It didn't strike me as anything special at the time, that for all of her birthday parties we'd help rig a ramp to her house so the CP kids could get in easily, and that my own speech abilities had expanded to understand my friends who spoke in their own special way.
    But now that I'm grown I am so grateful to that brave little girl who encouraged me to be accepting rather than charitable, and see everyone as worthy of patience and attention.


Thanks for sharing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...