Sports For All brings inclusion to the classroom
Program for disabled students facilitated by U of R students
Physical education in public schools is a child’s first entry into the world of movement-based”activity. For Mitchell Smith, an arts education student at the U of R, that means more than just competitive sports. Although he is looking to teach arts, Smith is himself an athlete and knows that people like to win. He emphasizes, though, that the deeper purpose of sports – generating teamwork skills and self-confidence – can’t be forgotten, especially for kids. Smith is an advocate of including movement in every aspect of education, even subjects like math, where he says it’s totally possible to involve the body in learning. More important than winning and setting records as an athlete, he says, is simply being able to participate in movement with one’s peers.
For young athletes with disabilities, however, there can be institutional barriers to this simple goal. That’s why Mitchell is so passionate about running the Sports for All Program on campus, a project he took over this year. Sports for All was founded by Kerri Staples several years ago in conjunction with her research in kinesiology, and the program has since grown to focus on teaching “FUNdamental movement” for children 7 to 13 with a range of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The program is facilitated by coaches, student volunteers who direct and supervise games and exercises for the young athletes. Many are involved in education or sport themselves, but there are others who are simply passionate about the project and want to be involved.
“Fundamental movement,” Smith explained, refers to the basic bodily movements that are required to engage in sport and physical activity. Examples of these movements are running, jumping, kicking, throwing, and catching. They may seem simple or even automatic to some, but the truth is that different kids develop these basic movements at different paces and levels. Smith said the focus of the program is individualized support for athletes once they get in the gym.
“In schools, students get about half an hour for gym, and a lot of that time is spent just changing out into gym clothes. Then they usually play a game. That leaves no time at all for one-on-one instruction if kids are having trouble with fundamentals.”
Smith and the people at Sports For All see a disconnect between the needs of some students and the opportunities they’re being given to engage in movement. If a student hasn’t been given enough attention and instruction to learn how to throw a ball or jump, that student cannot be expected to fully participate in any games or sports in their gym class – they are left out of the experience.
“It’s just assumed that kids know these things,” Smith siad. But those assumptions leave a gap in students’ capacity to play, and in turn, their overall self-confidence. Sports For All is an eight-week program that aims to give these students their own space to focus on fundamentals. Smith describes it as both extra-curricular and a necessary part of the athletes’ physical education.
The pride Mitchell has in both the coaches and athletes at Sports For All was evident throughout our interview. He explained that he tries his best to “load the roster” with coaches at every practice, so that there’s at least one coach available for every athlete. Having one-on-one instruction is essential. “Everyone is different,” he says. “We modify all our activities based on the needs of that athlete. We need a lot of coaches so we’re able to do that . . . everyone has some kind of skill.”
Athletes in the program have shown marked improvement with the attention they receive through activities like dribbling around pylons, doing stretches and jumping exercises, and circuit running. “A lot of our athletes were learning how to play basketball, and we used a [lower and easier-to-use] practice basket.” Smith showed me this basket in the back room. It was about chest-height, allowing an athlete to focus just on aim. “But I’m now proud to say that we don’t need to use them anymore; all those students can use a regular basket to play. They’ve all worked really, really hard, and we use lots of stuff to make it fun.”
Sports For All also uses visual aids, like plastic “colour spots” on the ground of the gym that help an athlete physically see the distance they should travel before dribbling a basketball. This addresses the difficulty those athletes have gauging distance or understanding the markings on the gym floor, things that their teachers at school are likely to miss with a large class size. Because of the extra time they can spend at Sports For All, though, those athletes can now go back to school and participate in games more fully than they would have before.
When talking about the future of the program, Smith said he wanted to be able to get more students involved as a priority, including students beyond the age range of 13 years.
“After students age out of Sports For All, there’s a gap in between that and the [age range for the] Special Olympics. So I want to give athletes somewhere to go in between those periods, so they can keep getting that one-on-one.”
Smith has seen the benefits of the program for the athletes and for their families, many of whom he has been personally thanked by for what the program offers. “I just want more people to know about it. I fight really hard for this program, and I don’t do it for me, I do it for the athletes.”
Smith lives by a three-part mantra: “Work hard, treat others fairly, and earn respect.” He brings those values with him in Sports For All. Every athlete has their own set of goals, and the confidence and health of young people improves by meeting those goals where they are. As someone who felt out of space in sports as a child, I found myself encouraged by a real effort in this program to assert everyone’s right to be included in movement activity. It is an initiative worth supporting.
Sports For All will end its 8-week program on November 29 this year, and Smith hopes that the number of athletes in the next program will increase. Photos of the Sports for All practices can be found on the U of R Recreation Services website.