Imagine a group of young children learning basic sports skills like running, kicking, throwing, catching and jumping, while playing. That is what Special Olympics Young Athletes™ is all about. Young Athletes is an inclusive early childhood sport and play program for children ages 2 to 7. As a partner of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s Together Counts™ program, we want to introduce you to this program that offers sports play, fun physical activity and inclusion activities for children with and without intellectual disabilities. Learning these important skills early in one’s life, and having fun while doing so, can set a child up for enjoying an active lifestyle for their lifetime.
The goals of Young Athlete include:
- Engaging children with and without intellectual disabilities in developmentally appropriate play activities to foster physical, cognitive and social development;
- Welcoming family members to Special Olympics’ network of support; and
- Raising awareness about the abilities of children with intellectual disabilities through inclusive peer participation, demonstration and other events.
Young Athletes is offered in a variety of settings including schools, the community and at home. With an emphasis on participation through activities and play, rather than competition, children learn basic sports skills like kicking and throwing a ball, and playing with others. The program also provides children with gross motor skills training, group interaction and socialization opportunities. These basic skills support mental and physical growth and will prepare the Young Athletes for future participation in sports.
Benefits of Participation in Young Athletes include:
Motor development gains: Children participating in the Curriculum Research Study gained 7 months motor development compared to 3 months for the control group. Gains were sustained in some motor development skills up to 10 months following the 8 week intervention. 75% of teachers reported a positive impact on motor skill development during the Pilot Study.
Socio-emotional and cognitive development: In the Curriculum Research study parents and teachers both reported gains in kindergarten readiness skills, increased enthusiasm and confidence, and social skills. 50% of teachers reported gains in social and adaptive behaviors (e.g., following directions, attention, independence, eye contact, following routines) during the Pilot Study.
Awareness: Family members consistently report their hopes and expectations are raised through the program, especially in areas of the world where families and children are stigmatized. The current study in 5 countries to assess cultural adaptations and impact on children, families and communities is validating the anecdotal findings.
Families and educators actively support Young Athletes- Tracey Sanchez, an educator in Southern California shares her experiences
“Johnny has made major improvements in his gross motor skills and his social-emotional development. In the beginning of implementing Young Athletes in the classroom, he had difficulty jumping with two feet and stepping over a small hurdle. He required physical assistance. As we practiced YA in the classroom, he became more confident in his jumping skills and started to push the adults’ hand away when assistance was offered. When he went over the hurdle independently, he laughed and smiled as the teacher and staff in the classroom praised him. Since then, he has become much more confident in practicing skills in the program and it has also translated to his confidence in accessing the school playground equipment. “
Regardless of whether you have a child with disabilities or not, learn more about how to get your family involved in the Young Athletes Program (as athletes or volunteers) and contribute to creating a new generation of active, inclusive youth!
For more information on the Young Athlete Program contact your local Special Olympics office. Training and resource materials are available at: http://resources.specialolympics.org/Topics/Young_Athletes/Young_Athletes_Toolkit.aspx
Alice Lenihan is the Senior Global Clinical Advisor with the Health Promotion, Healthy Athletes Program, Special Olympics. She is a Registered Dietitian with over thirty years experience in public health and nutrition.
For more family-friendly ideas for how to live an active, healthy lifestyle check out these other articles from Together Counts!