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Class teaches disabled kids basics for building athletic ability

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Inside a Center Grove-area office, a group of young children lined up to take their shot.

They were playing kickball for the first time. All the players had a disability, such as autism or developmental delays.

Each time one kicked the ball, it set off a flurry of activity as they ran as fast as they could. The other children and adults in the room cheered and clapped in encouragement. Sometimes the kids went the wrong way around the bases, but the adults supervising gently pointed them toward first base.

As a kind of primer for athletic competition, the Special Olympics of Johnson County has revived its Play Skills program after a nine-month hiatus. The aim is to teach young children with special needs the value of sports and how to interact with others. They work on hand-eye coordination and physical fitness, in addition to how to work well with other children and teamwork.

If you go

What: Play Skills, a program building athletic ability and social skills for special needs children ages 2 to 7

When: 6 to 7 p.m. every Thursday

Where: Collaborating for Kids, 1701 Library Blvd., Suite A, Greenwood

Cost: Free

Information: Email specialolympicsjc@gmail.com

All of the participants are too young to join Special Olympics programs, so this serves as an introduction, said Sue Koch, sports director for Special Olympics Johnson County.

“It’s really important that young children have the opportunity to learn the skills that will make them competent athletes when they’re 8, so they’re comfortable playing whatever sports they want to play,” she said. “It also gives a parent who maybe thought their child couldn’t do something a chance to see that they can do it. That’s such an ‘a-ha!’ moment for them.”

Play Skills is a free program that is specifically designed for children ages 2 to 7.

Special Olympics Johnson County had a similar program for the past few years but had struggled to find a new location and people to lead it. Local officials ended it late last year.

But through a partnership with Collaborating for Kids, a family-centered pediatric therapy service, it started again in September.

Collaborating for Kids hosts the weekly gathering in its facility, which includes large carpeted rooms for playing. Because the company treats children with special needs such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, it already has the equipment necessary to work with Special Olympics kids, said Lindsay Knez, co-founder of Collaborating with Kids.

“We help them develop all of the prerequisite skills it takes to participate into a sport, things like waiting your turn or standing in a line,” she said. “We don’t do winning and losing but the routine of participating in sport.”

Each session is structured roughly the same way. Knez and her husband, Frank Knez, help oversee the program. The programs also are attended by teachers, occupational therapists and speech therapists on a rotating schedule.

All of the participants and group leaders meet in a big circle to introduce themselves, do some stretching and play some ice-breaking games so everyone feels comfortable.

The children are taught a specific athletic skill, such as passing a heavy rubber ball back and forth or kicking a beach ball to someone else in the circle. Once they’ve practiced that, they get to play games using those skills.

The kids get to shoot baskets at a lowered hoop or boot soccer balls into a makeshift goal. Kickball has become one of the more popular activities, as the kids love the excitement of running the bases.

“Sometimes, it is just watching another child throw the ball or kick the ball. And they think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” said Rita Abell, co-coordinator for Special Olympics of Johnson County.

While Play Skills is aimed at children, the program has a benefit for adults as well. Parents or another adult are required to come with their kids and stay through the hourlong session.

Their kids get to play, and parents can talk with others in similar situations as their families.

“So many times, a parent will feel like they’re out there all by themselves, trying to find therapy and solutions for their kids. It lets them talk with other parents, network and feel more comfortable,” Koch said. “Many times, the parent doesn’t have time for a social outlet themselves, so this ends up being that. For them to just be able to relax and talk, someone else is working with their child.”

Play Skills has met only four times, with attendance ranging from five to 10 children each time. But organizers expect participation to increase once more parents and people find out about it.

They’ve been canvassing schools, behavioral specialists and physical therapists to distribute information about the program. The key is simply letting people know another option is available.

“A lot of parents have called me and told me that’s what they’re looking for more than anything, particularly for their 4-year-olds. They’re not in kindergarten yet, but the parents want something as another social outlet, but a very structured social outlet,” Abell said. “We have to connect with them.”

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