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How to Adapt Sports for Inclusion

Making games fun for everybody


Matthew Schinelli

Matthew Schinelli

Photo courtesy of Matthew Schinelli

We hear a lot about differentiated instruction these days as it applies to work done in an inclusive classroom. As parents, though, the place we're most likely to be called to provide differentiation is in physical activities. Perhaps you're trying to plan games for a birthday party or a family get-together, a field day for your child's school, a weekly sports night for a church group, an informal playground group in the neighborhood. How do you adjust the activity to make it accessible to children with special needs, yet still interesting to kids with more typical abilities?

I asked Matthew Schinelli, an expert on adaptive physical education and founder of www.NJAPE.org, an organization that provides information and support for the inclusion of kids with disabilities in sports, to give us some examples on how a game might be tweaked to welcome players of all abilities. He offered five suggestions to start with:

Redefine inclusive play. It's a lot easier to make the changes needed when you know what you're trying to do. Advises Schinelli, "If your definition of inclusive play does not indicate the integration of creativity in game design, and only adheres to the traditional presentation of sport activities, it will tremendously limit who can play and the motivation level of the participants." Instead of figuring out how to get kids with disabilities to conform to traditional rules and regulations, think about creating a new way of playing that lets everybody shine. "A great analogy to use when shaping your definition is to ask yourself if you see your program as either a circus or an assemble line," says Schinelli. "A circus in nature embraces individual differences, non-traditional movements, and unique skill abilities, and yet is still inviting enough to interest a diverse mix of ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds. An assemble line simply pushes the same product down the line over and over again, and has no room for creativity or individual differences."

Find your players' interests. Not sports interests -- entertainment interests of all sorts. "Incorporating personal interests outside of traditional sport themes is often the missing ingredient to success," according to Schinelli. "Simply put, find out what kids are interested in and embed those themes into the game creation. A simple checklist survey will do the trick. For example, 'Please list two of your favorite: video games, movies, music songs, cartoons, toys, travel destinations, books, etc.'"

Work those interests into the game. After you've compiled the information from the surveys, "start building common themes into the sport activities," says Schinelli. "Themes can be embedded in a minimal or extremely invasive manner. For example, if the movie Star Wars is listed as a personal interest and baseball is the activity, then either character names or other Star Wars elements could be incorporated into play (i.e. Team Yoda, Darth Vader, or Skywalker). Team names or individual players could adopt movie character elements. Instead of using bats players could use 'light sabers,' and instead of running the bases players would have to 'fly' their spacecraft from planet to planet. Innings switches could allow for either entirely new themes, or could serve as the next chapter in the Star Wars movie series. You could even mix themes such as having Harry Potter challenge the X-men as they play across the outback of Australia."

Forget the traditional rules. All that creativity and use of outside interests can help you change the focus from a formal style of game-play to one that allows everybody to have fun. "Focus on personal creativity, individual strengths, and 'goal thinking,'" to make sports more inclusive, Schinelli suggests. "For example, the goal of basketball is to transport one object from one place to another place, and then place the object into or through something. Therefore, if basketball is the activity, it could be played with multiple balls/objects and baskets/targets. Teams could challenge themselves by determining how many objects/balls could be transported via dribbling, rolling, carrying, or throwing from one end of the gym to the other. At which time the object would then be placed or thrown into either a low, medium, or high basket while the other team attempts to defend. Participants with a high energy level can be chasers, and those on the lower end can be blockers. As time goes on you can always scale back the activity to resemble more of the traditional game of basketball. The key is always focus on the goal, not the implied rules of the game."

Assess what works and what doesn't. "At the end of each game, ask for feedback on what worked and what needs to be altered," says Schinelli. "This can be done in several ways: handout surveys, online ratings of games, or just the old-fashioned method of show of hands. In the end, progress will be messy, but that is the nature of all creative projects. Effectiveness is measured by how closely the game play resembles your definition of inclusion."

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