Young Athletes: Programming for the Future

March 1, 2016, Department, by Ariel Kliem, LRT/CTRS

The Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program is focused on early skills development activities for children younger than 8 years of age, with and without disabilities.The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department (MCPRD)/Therapeutic Recreation Section (TRS) and Special Olympics of North Carolina are paving the way for young athletes and early intervention programs. 

In 2004, the Special Olympics International Board of Directors and its Program Committee discussed the idea of including children younger than 8 years old in developmentally appropriate activities as an early outreach mechanism for new athletes and their families. The Program Committee focused on the benefits of early skills development activities in preparation for sports training and competitions, health benefits and physical therapy, as well as social and cognitive development. This led to the development of the Young Athletes Program (YAP). 

YAP is open to children with and without disabilities — MCPRD’s program primarily targets 2-5 year olds within select pre-kindergarten classrooms. It is offered in an inclusive setting at certain school sites and focuses on teaching the fundamental skills of a variety of different sports. 

When the Special Olympics created YAP, it was a loosely formed initiative that focused on programming for children with developmental delays and/or developmental disabilities who were too young to participate in a traditional Special Olympics program. In order to participate in Special Olympics sports, children must be at least 8 years of age. YAP offers an opportunity for those too young to participate in Special Olympics sports to learn the basic skills required and to also increase gross motor skills.  

The Beginning

In the spring of 2009, the Therapeutic Recreation Section of MCPRD was approached by Special Olympics of North Carolina to discuss partnering on this newly piloted initiative. TRS had a meeting with one of the state vice presidents of Special Olympics and visited a Young Athletes Field Day event being held in Cabarrus County to see the structure of its program. Since YAP was still a new concept, there was very little information on how to make the program successful or even what direction to take with its development. Because the program was in the pilot stage, each site was allowed to develop its own programs that worked around a loosely based theme of early childhood development skills. Some sites were doing ongoing programs while others were holding one-day events.   

In the fall of 2009, MCPRD TRS staff contacted the Developmental Pre-Kindergarten Program for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). Through this partnership, we were able to develop a pilot program in the spring of 2010. We started by serving six classrooms in four different CMS schools, reaching 47 children with disabilities for seven weeks of in-school activities to develop sport skills. The Young Athletes Field Day celebration, held May 1, hosted more than 30 families who came to see what their children learned during the almost two months of the program. 

The Program

Each week of YAP focuses on a different gross motor or sport skill, including balance, running and jumping, kicking and trapping, throwing and catching, and striking. Along with different activities to develop the skill, we also teach and reinforce pre-kindergarten-level social skills, including sharing, taking turns and following directions. Throughout each activity, the therapeutic recreation specialist modifies and adapts the level of challenge based on the skills of each student.

We are currently celebrating the sixth year of Young Athletes programming, which has continued to grow over the years. The number of participants has increased more than sevenfold since the original start date. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation TRS staff members are currently visiting 15 CMS public schools and one private school. That’s 460 children seen, on average, per week! We program for a total of at least 20 weeks during the school year — 10 weeks in the fall and 10 weeks in the spring — and we are involved in the Special Olympics spring games.

Going forward, we hope to eventually provide YAP to all CMS school sites that host an Exceptional Children pre-kindergarten classroom. TRS staff members are continuing to develop and enhance lesson plans every week with new and exciting goals and objectives. We will continue working to develop new contacts with our schools and on increasing the number of children served. It has been incredibly rewarding to be a part of this program! Every year we see new faces and have the opportunity to work with some amazing children. We see growth in all of the children from the first day of YAP in the fall to the final all-skills day in the spring. MCPRD is looking forward to the continued expansion of the program and is delighted to be a part of these developmental milestones!

We are currently celebrating the sixth year of Young Athletes programming, which has continued to grow over the years. The number of participants has increased more than sevenfold since the original start date. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation TRS staff members are currently visiting 15 CMS public schools and one private school. That’s 460 

Ariel Kliem, LRT/CTRS, is a Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.


YAP Teacher Testimonial

Being part of the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program with Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Therapeutic Recreation Section has been a wonderful experience for me and my students. I have now had the opportunity to participate with the program for two years. When my co-worker told me about it and invited me to participate, I was ecstatic. I knew that my students would love getting the extra time to run, jump and play, especially while being outside.

Through YAP, the students learn various basic sports skills that increase their strength and coordination. Many of them struggle with their coordination skills and this program gives them the chance to improve. They also learn about working together as a team in order to complete various skills. YAP gives students the opportunity to develop the foundational skills they will need to play sports in the future. 

Before the start of the program, many students did not know how to throw a ball or to balance. Now, when they go outside, they are eager to work on throwing, catching and kicking. They have been given an opportunity to gain skills they may never have learned if it wasn’t for YAP. They also are excited about playing sports and learning that it takes practice in order to get better! YAP has been and will continue to be a wonderful foundational program for students with and without disabilities.

Katherine Zuhl is a pre-kindergarten teacher at Winding Springs Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina.