Exercise and Health Sciences Faculty and Students Help Children with Disabilities at YMCA

Betsabe Gomez | May 13, 2011
Exercise and Health Sciences Faculty and Students Help Children with Disabilities at YMCA

A group of ten students from the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences (EHS) at UMass Boston are putting the knowledge they've gained in the classroom to good use in the community-- and making a difference.

The students are participating in All Abilities Active, an adapted physical activity program for children with physical, intellectual, and/or sensory disabilities, held at the Oak Square YMCA in Brighton. All Abilities Active is led by Associate Professor Heidi Stanish, an adaptive physical activity specialist.

The ten week program is funded by the E.K. Shriver Center LEND Program.

Stanish, who has developed and administered several physical activity programs reaching youths with disabilities, started All Activities Active in March. The program is free and open to children ages 7 through 11, and 12 through 16; the groups meet every Friday evening.

Each week, a pair of EHS students develop a lesson plan and lead the activities for the day, with every student getting to teach a class twice. The group also meets once a week to go over the lesson plans and strategize. Stanish is always present during the activity sessions, but lets her students take the reins.

Around 22 children participate in the program; most of them have autism spectrum disorders, but there is some variety. The format of each activity session is very structured, as children with autism thrive in structured environments that are predictable. A typical day at All Abilities Active consists of a warm-up and large group activities such as basketball, dance, and an obstacle course.

Stanish says that the best part of All Activities Active is the fact that it is a program purely designed to meet the needs of the community, which is distinctly different from conducting research.

"It's nice to help others while not having to do data collection," she says.

According to Stanish, the first few weeks were a learning experience for the students teaching because they had yet to become comfortable with the kids, and with having to plan and execute activity sessions. The weekly sessions have improved considerably over time as the students gained skills and confidence. They have learned to modify and adapt each activity in order to accommodate children with a variety of needs, including visual and physical impairments.

Nowadays, things run smoothly. Parents drop their children off and many of them seem eager to participate.

A boy in the younger group tries to get another boy to play Frisbee with him. One girl in the second group asks if she’ll get to play basketball since it’s her favorite activity. Some kids need to be coaxed more than others to participate. Some need specialized attention and are paired up with a single EHS student who spends the entire session with them, trying to encourage them to get moving.

“Most kids have responded well, although sometimes they get nervous because of the noise," Stanish says. "It’s great to see these kids participating in physical activities, especially because a lot of them have never had positive experiences with it before. We try to make it fun and interesting for them so that they will want to continue."

When asked what she’s learned from the experience, Stanish says, “I think I’ve re-learned that students can rise to the occasion. I have been so impressed with how they’ve grown as leaders and as teachers. ”

She also believes that the success of the program is proof that UMass Boston is preparing its students to work in the real world.

“It’s so different to get hands-on experience instead of just sitting in a classroom,” says Kaitlyn Neal, an EHS junior who wants to work in occupational therapy after she graduates.

Caitlin Cook, a senior, agrees: “There are not many classes where you can actually do something outside the classroom that relates to what you are learning. ”

“I didn’t know planning a lesson could be so demanding!” says Andrea Rodgers, a senior. “It’s been great to see some of the kids working and interacting with each other. ”

Both Stanish and the students love to see how some parents respond to the program. A lot of parents have never seen their child playing a sport, especially a team sport. Many of them probably thought they would never get to see that happen.

“The kids were playing soccer a few weeks ago, and one parent was cheering like crazy when his son made a goal,” says Rodgers.

Tags: cnhs , college of nursing and health sciences , community , disabilities , exercise , service , the point

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