Inclusive Recreation Builds a Better Community
Krissy Peterson loves sports, especially basketball. Like many young adults, she’s excited to get out on the court and socialize with her peers, an opportunity which was once just a dream for her mother Nancy. Krissy has microcephaly, a neurological disorder in which the head circumference is two standard deviations smaller than average, often leading to reduced brain function and life expectancy. Six years ago when Krissy began participating in the inclusive recreation programs offered through BREC, the recreation and parks commission for the parish of East Baton Rouge, and The ARC Baton Rouge she was just a shy girl standing quietly in the field. Today she is an active, vibrant member of the basketball, baseball, soccer and football teams and has made friendships that extend beyond the field.
“When she first went out on the field,” explains her mother, “she was real standoffish, but as she kept going and the other kids kept rallying around her she changed so much. She has become more interactive with others and has better self-esteem. Now she just runs out on the field and can’t wait to participate.
Margaret McCoy’s son Bryson, who has Down syndrome, has been participating in the inclusive sports leagues in Baton Rouge for years and loves every minute of it. With each game his skills advance and the physical exercise alone has made a great difference in his life.
“Physically he is the most improved,” explains McCoy, “I don’t like to brag, but he’s always happy and always wants to play and help people. Bryson knows everybody. He plays all the sports that are offered and each time he just progresses more and enjoys it more.”
Emily Davidson, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston and project leader for Opening Doors: Project Adventure, says the goal of inclusive recreation is to allow any child with any disability to do any activity they want to do in an inclusive setting. It’s important that all children have access to the same recreation opportunities including camps, special events, arts and crafts, swimming and team sports.
The immediate benefits of inclusive recreation are obvious and are the same as with any recreation program: new friendships, new skills, and increased confidence. The difference with inclusive recreation is that it brings people with disabilities together with their nondisabled peers. Uniting children with different abilities creates greater levels of acceptance and understanding and fosters the growth of all children. Katrina Coots, inclusive recreation manager at BREC, says it is made clear to the children that bullying is not acceptable. Children are taught that the focus is never on what someone can’t do but what they can do.
“The willingness to engage with other people grows,” says Meyer, “Sportsman like conduct has increased, especially when they start out so young at age 3 or 4. It helps some children become leaders by showing others how to shoot the basketball.”
Davidson says that the exercise can help to address conditions specific to a child’s health issues. An example she offers is that of children with Down syndrome, who tend to have lower levels of activity than their peers, while also being at a higher risk of developing obesity. An increase in exercise can also help those battling depression.
“The biggest benefit of inclusive recreation,” says Davidson, “is that the children get to be a part of the community and be engaged in every experience that any of their peers would be involved in. And peers without challenges can see the benefits of being part of community that celebrates everybody in it.”
According to Coots, while most parents want their child to participate for socialization, what they realize is that these children will graduate from high school together and be a part of each other’s greater community which can mean working together, participating in local events and helping out your neighbor in times of need. Meyer refers to it as the long range return on the investment.
“What we see happening,” Meyer explains, “is that people in the long term, because of that acceptance and tolerance and willingness, are more inclined to hire someone or assist them as a neighbor. Adults are finding jobs through contacts made in the leagues. It erases that fear and that prejudice and brings about a little more sensitivity and caring.”
Brooke Stewart, the inclusive recreation director for The ARC Baton Rouge explains that the keys to a successful program are networking and flexibility. She says families need to learn what their child wants and needs from a recreation program such as social skills or particular exercise. From there, seek out those that may be able to help. It may be a cousin or a teacher who is able to find the right connection to the right program. If the right program doesn’t exist it can be designed.
“Initiate dialogue, create the network and run with it,” says Stewart, “Be flexible and accommodating the best that you can.” She also explains that at the heart of inclusive recreation is collaboration. It isn’t the sole responsibility of the parks and recreation department or families. Inclusive recreation is most successful when a variety of groups come together to create short and long term goals.
“People want to do good things but don’t always know how. Missions can meld,” says Meyer, “We’ve got parents that have never had an opportunity to see their child with a disability participate in a sport. They have never seen their son or daughter with a disability go out there and have fun. Now they are there in the bleachers with the other parents. They are participating in the typical activities that they may never have had the opportunity to before. Kids are having fun. It’s the cheapest smile you can find.”
Nancy Flanders is a freelance writer residing in Essex Junction, Vermont with her husband Steven and daughter Magdalene. Maggie was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at just six days old thanks to newly established newborn screening rules. Nancy has written for numerous local publications, was the co-founder and editor of Vermont HomeStyle Magazine and is currently a stay-at-home mom and a contributor to KidsVT Newspaper. She writes The ExtraOrdinary Child, a monthly piece focused on special needs topics. Nancy is also a member of the Cystic Fibrosis Patient and Family Advisory Council at The Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont.
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