Giving Children of All Abilities Opportunities for Adaptive Play

Blog: Giving Children of All Abilities Opportunities for Adaptive Play

Newport County YMCA's Adapted Physical Activity Director Megan Leonard talks about how the Y is helping children of all abilities reach their full potential through adaptive play.

What is your role at the Newport County YMCA?

I'm the Adapted Physical Activity Director at the Newport County YMCA and work on a number of programs designed to give children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of recreational and therapeutic activities.

How did you become involved with the Newport County YMCA?

I became involved with the Newport County YMCA as a volunteer before joining the staff. As a volunteer, I quickly learned the impact the organization has on local youth and was proud to be a part of its mission.

What is the Adapted Physical Activity Program?

The Newport County YMCA offers Adapted Physical Activity programs that are designed to give children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of recreational and therapeutic activities. Through activity, we emphasize each person's ability and individuality.  Programs are specifically designed to foster independence while providing positive recreational and educational experiences for our participants.  

Can you give some examples of Adapted Physical Activity Program activities?

The Newport County YMCA Adapted Physical Activity department takes existing YMCA programs and adapts them to meet the needs of children and adults with disabilities. Weekly programs for adults include sports group, strength training, water weights, social swim, cardio dance, chair yoga, and walking group.

For our younger participants we offer weekly classes such as yoga, gymnastics, art, swim, strength training and cheerleading. In addition, children and teens are invited to join our after-school club and summer camp. We also welcome participants as an active part of our community events and invite them to join our Special Olympics teams.

What Adapted Physical Activity program activities do kids get most excited about?

While each child is different and responds to programs in their own way, in my experience, swim programs and pool activities are nearly universal in their ability to energize youth.  Kids look forward to the swim component of camp, after-school club and teen social night and our aquatics classes fill quickly.

What will the grant you've received from CVS Caremark support?

Funding from CVS Caremark allowed the Newport County YMCA to expand and improve our adapted after-school club as well as offer scholarships to children and families in need.  Specifically, we incorporated a healthy eating component which includes a weekly cooking class and provided financial assistance to 20 percent of our participants who otherwise may not have been able to attend.

What do you love most about your job?

I feel fortunate to work in a place that provides me with an opportunity to make a significant impact in my community and help the participants develop and create positive memories while challenging them in a unique way.  I am grateful to the Newport County YMCA for taking the initiative to develop the Adaptive Physical Activity program and to the generous funders who continue to make it possible. 

Can you give an example of a child who has overcome obstacles through his/her involvement in the Adapted Physical Activity program?

About a year ago I began working with a 16-year-old girl in the pool to improve her swimming skills. When we began working together she was barely willing to leave the wall near the stairs, too fearful to proceed. Throughout the year, we increased her confidence and pushed her to swim further and further down the pool lane. As of a month ago, this 16-year-old girl was able to swim the entire length of the pool. Being able to watch her overcome her fear and develop the confidence to swim in deep water has been an incredible experience.

Can you tell us about one of your most rewarding experiences at the Newport County YMCA?

This past summer I had a child in "Camp I Can" who experienced frequent meltdowns due to his disability. On the last day of camp he experienced a meltdown so extreme that we had to call his mother to ask for help. About 15 minutes later, while we waited for his mother to arrive, the child confided in me that he was upset because he was scared to go back to school. That summer he had made friends and thought of the Y as a fun and safe place. The young boy went on to tell me that at school he had no friends and often ate lunch alone. As the child and I spoke, he began to calm down and chose to stay.  At that moment my work went beyond Adaptive Program Director or Camp Counselor and evolved into the role of a trusted confidant.  Through our conversation we were able to ascertain what the child needed and his mother was able to take steps to make changes in his life. 

I am privileged to be trusted by parents to work with their children and equally privileged to be trusted by the children I work with every day. 

What advice can you give to families who are looking to participate in adapted physical activity programs? What resources are out there to help them identify where there are local opportunities?

While not all communities in Rhode Island have formal Adapted Physical Activities Programs, many have opportunities for inclusion that may fit your needs. I would encourage all families to reach out to their local YMCA or other community-based organizations and ask what is available and how it may be adapted as necessary. In addition, Rhode Island boasts a number of individual and unified Special Olympics Teams. Anyone with intellectual disabilities is invited to participate and all are welcome. 

Does the YMCA have Adapted Physical Activity programs in other markets across the country?

The idea of having an Adapted Physical Activity Department is still fairly new. Many YMCAs across the country offer a swimming class, sports class or host events for children and adults with disabilities. It is our hope that by raising awareness of what we are able to offer at the Newport County YMCA, we will inspire other YMCAs to follow our lead and offer more programs to help children and adults of all abilities. 

All Kids Can thanks Megan Leonard for speaking with us about the Newport County YMCA's Adapted Physical Activity Program and for helping children of all abilities reach their full potential through adaptive play.