International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Does Gymnastics Help Children with Special Needs?

According to a 2014 study titled “Understanding the Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with a Disability” by Robert Campaign, there are numerous advantages of gymnastics participation for children with disabilities.

From a physical standpoint, the study revealed that gymnastics improved the strength, flexibility, balance and coordination of children with special needs; it has also been found it increase confidence, self-esteem and overall social development.

Campaign’s study surveyed parents with children ranging from 2-14 years old with a range of disabilities including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, epilepsy, learning difficulties, stroke and vision impairments. The survey asked parents what benefits they expected their child to experience as a result of gymnastics participation; 80% of them expected physical benefits, 39% expected increased confidence, 28% mentioned increased social skills, while 20% expected fun.

Parents identify numerous benefits of gymnastics participation

Parents were then asked to evaluate the extent to which the benefits have been realized, with 80% stating the benefits were “largely achieved.”  Achieved benefits included enhanced gross and fine motor skills, coordination and balance, increased confidence and muscle tone.

Room for improvement?

When surveyed about areas of improvement in their child’s gymnastics program, some parents believed that instructors should receive more training and education on disability and behavioral issues in sports: “if mainstream gymnastics coaches were trained to deal with children with social behavioral needs then we would have our daughter in more classes a week.” Another parent claimed that “coaches need practical techniques re[garding] his [son’s] behavior – not to single him out but to reinforce the need to listen to the coach when he or she is addressing the group.”

Instructors see the value of gymnastics for children with disabilities

The second part of Campaign’s study interviewed gymnastics instructors about the experience of teaching gymnastics to children with disabilities. The top 5 benefits identified by the instructors were physical (strength, balance, coordination, flexibility), confidence development, social interaction, individual success at own level (including non-competitive), and family enjoyment of a child’s participation.

The instructors echoed the parent’s concerns about a lack of disability knowledge and training, but also stressed that increased communication with the parents would enable them to tailor their instruction to children with special needs. As one instructor notes: “further knowledge from parents would be helpful. Sometime they won’t reveal the disability so the instructor has to tease out – what the issues are, how best to interact…”

Instructors expressed a need for specialized training and written resources to properly navigate coaching children with disabilities: “There is a need for coaches to understand disability – knowing how the child is and their requirements. So if a kid has a hearing disability we need tips like providing clear instructions and speaking directly to the child. Or autism kids – give them one instruction at a time and don’t overload them with instructions.”

Click here to read the full study.

Click here for more information on gymnastics and children with special needs.

Works Cited

Campaign, Robert. Understanding the Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with Disability. Rep. Scope Ltd., 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

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