Adapted Physical Education unites all who participate in it, creating unity, learning, and growth. It reminds us of our youth. Think back to a time when you were a happy child. Your memories may recall running through a field of flowers with your best friends, or perhaps hiking through the mountains with your parents. Your fondest childhood memory could even revolve around something as simple as riding bikes with your siblings, or that moment when you were able to swim to the deep end of the pool without holding onto the edge. These are things that many of us take for granted, as there are thousands of children in America who face activities like these with a number of challenges, and even anxiety. However, with a customized plan for play and physical activity, children with disabilities are able to approach physical activities and playtime with the same curiosity, enthusiasm, and independence that children experience in traditional physical education environments.
French artist Henri Matisse said that, “creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play”. Adapted Child’s Play (ACP) is an adapted physical education organization founded by Marnie Young that focuses on building healthy bodies and minds through sports and play designed to promote independence, leadership, curiosity, social skills and motor skills development. ACP also provides the ability for children to be flexible with their physical conditions that would otherwise ostracize them from traditional PE programs. ACP celebrates each child’s unique spirit and customizes a special plan tailored to meet their needs on all levels.
Meet a Parent
One particular mother has been working with Marnie for over six years now, and her two sons are a shining example of the kind of success kids can expect to experience in an ACP program. Julie Francisco is a proud mother of three; her daughter has not been diagnosed as having any condition that would delay her development. Then there are her two boys Andrew (age 9) and Noah (age 6) who both have Down syndrome, yet each boy has his own set of unique challenges.
Julie explains that children with down syndrome face specific challenges within the scope of playing. Because Down syndrome impacts growth motor skills, these children are developmentally behind their piers who have no health problems. This means that when a teacher gives instructions, otherwise healthy children respond right away and begin kicking the ball, while children with slowed motor skills don’t process hearing instructions as easily. This often results in a teacher having to repeat herself multiple times, and in different ways. Then once the child understands the instructions, his underdeveloped coordination and balance may likely pose obstacles allowing him to play WITH his friends, versus playing around them in the tiring process of trying to catch up. ACP removes these obstacles by including children in a pier group of equal abilities where custom games are developed to give kids all the challenges, goals, and rewards that typical children experience every day.
So does this mean that children like Andrew and Noah should only play with other kids who share their same set of challenges? This is a topic that can get pretty heated whether it is being addressed at a school board meeting, or between a group of soccer moms. Julie shares an open-minded opinion that includes a hybrid of the two. While ACP works wonders at helping kids develop and achieving their goals, mixed environment play, Julie explains, is also beneficial for her kids because the environment reinforces pier modeling and helps them learn to function and engage with others in standard social settings.
A mixed play environment also benefits the children who normally participate in traditional PE classes because they are introduced to amazing kids like Andrew and Noah, and are able to see first hand that these kids are just like them: they love to play, make friends, learn new skills, and win. It’s just that one group of children attempts these things using different methods. In mixed environments, all kids are equal and learn through play together, and this is why ACP opens its doors to all children with all abilities, and it is why Julie sends her kids to traditional schools during normal hours, and to ACP when school lets out.
Adapted Physical Education: Celebrating Differences
Although equality is stressed, celebrating one’s differences is a special skill Marnie initiates into each one of her custom lessons for every single child. This registers as high points for Julie, as she has observed noticeable differences in her boy’s confidence and motor skills abilities. Andrew has been involved in adapted aquatics with Marnie since he was three, but get this: Andrew is afraid of water, or at least he was. His sensory skills somehow got crossed so that, prior to working with Marnie, touching water would cause anxiety. But after participating in adapted aquatics, Andrew’s anxiety dwindled down and his comfort zone has expanded.
For Noah, his challenge is more centered around motor skills through the act of peddling a bike. Marnie has modified bicycles with straps on the peddles to keep his little feet in place, and she assists Noah in peddling and steering the bike. Then when Noah and other kids are ready, the straps come off.
Let’s switch back to Andrew: Julie shared that her oldest son is now able to hop on one foot without holding someone’s hand, and whereas he previously couldn’t toss a ball inches in front of him, or roll a ball across the floor, now Andrew can send that ball spinning down the carpet, and he can throw a ball in the overhand position like a mini Clayton Kershaw! Celebrating differences leads to goals being met head-on, followed by victory and and feelings of joy and accomplishment. And at the end of the day, awesome kids like Andrew and Noah are just doing the things we all did in those memorable moments of our childhood: riding bikes, playing ball, running with friends, and swimming on a hot summer day.
Four-Legged ACP Therapists
All you have to do is visit ACP on a typical day, and ask the kids who Xena is, and their eyes will light up and grins will form a mile wide. Xena is Marnie’s therapy dog, and a beloved member of the ACP family. When asked how Xena contributes to the boy’s education and development, even Julie’s voice became animated, and with great enthusiasm she explained that this special little dog helps the kids open up and show their emotions. For example: one boy may be feeling frustrated or angry, and all it takes is Xena coming up to him and he is instantly soothed and settled to the point that he can better cope with his triggers. Another boy may be happy and looking for an outlet to release his joy, and when Xena is there he hugs her, and rejoices with her, and learns to share his emotional bliss with another soul—even if that soul barks!
But Xena isn’t just there to just calm tempers and join in on the celebrations; she also participates in therapy sessions with Julie’s boys. Julie explained that when her kids are learning to walk up stairs by placing one foot in front of the other, a skill especially hard for Noah who came from an orphanage where his need for motor skill development went ignored, Xena will slowly walk up the stairs with him, at his pace, lending guidance and encouragement. When Xena is there, Julie explained, Noah is more willing to complete the therapy in a calm manner that facilitates greater development. “Xena simply calms the chatter in his head”, Julie explained in summing up her praise of the amazing little dog who has become a popular entity in the Francisco household.
What Kids Love About ACP
Curious, flexible, persistent and independent—these are the things Matisse stressed that define the identity of a creative person. The things that children love the most about ACP all help them take on these traits. For her boys, Julie said that Marnie is deeply loved by her kids who have a sense that the work they do with her leads to more adventures, new questions being asked, and multiple ways to play and have fun. Including Xena in a ball game, or in a little bowling competition, are things that Andrew and Noah also love, and every time they do this Julie recognizes creative and inventive ways her boys are able to incorporate their choices into the physical act of playing.
Should All Parents of Special Needs Kids Turn to ACP?
When asked this question, Julie immediately proclaimed yes, and did so with zero hesitation. She explained the following:
“ACP is a wonderful resource for parents. If you have a child with a disability, there is that factor of going to the YMCA and making sure the teacher is comfortable and open to working with your child. It can be awkward for them, and troublesome for parents. Marnie’s staff works with all kids and is genuinely excited to have them there. With ACP there is no more searching down programs and teachers”.
Come Play With Us
Want to come play with Andrew, Noah, and Xena the Therapy Dog? Let your kids be part of something amazing. Marnie works for kids of all abilities, and they love her for it. The atmosphere is safe and inspirational, motivating kids to participate with their peers while growing through fun and games in a way that allows them to be society members in a loving, collaborative world where all challenges result in victories.