AllPlay creates a level playing field for children of all abilities

Research news
18 December 2019

Nine-year-old Saige has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Like many kids with ASD, she sometimes struggled with making friends at school. She didn’t often get invited to social events like playdates and birthday parties and was "generally perceived as a little odd", Saige’s mum Jodi said.

While Saige loves music and dancing, some neurotypical groups were hard for her to settle into. When it came to playing team sports like footy or netball, Saige had never shown much interest, finding the rules and dynamics "too hard".

Jodi heard about the AllPlay Footy program and signed Saige up for a pre-learn session, seeing it as an opportunity for Saige to experience a team sport in an adapted and supported environment - and at the very least to have a play for a couple of hours.

Deakin University’s AllPlay is a world-first initiative to enable children with developmental challenges or disabilities to participate in sport, dance and education. AllPlay Footy is one of their programs, which encourages kids of all abilities to give NAB AFL Auskick a try.

Saige enjoyed the pre-learn day so much that she joined her local NAB AFL Auskick centre in the All Abilities group. And thus began a journey that has changed her life.

Saige’s fitness and coordination have come along in leaps and bounds through learning a variety of footy skills such as kicking, marking and handballing. Perhaps even more importantly, Jodi has seen a significant improvement in Saige’s self-esteem. "Saige is a lot happier and feels like she can achieve things like everyone else."

Saige has never missed a single session at her club, and received a Coach’s Award for her determination and dedication. She has developed new friendships that have led to weekend playdates and holiday catch-ups.

For Jodi, the unique aspect of the program is the level of support and flexibility offered. "There are people there to make time just for Saige," said Jodi.

The program is very understanding of children with different needs.

"If Saige needs to take a break, they are fine with it. They are very accepting of all kids."

The strategies used in AllPlay Footy sessions have been developed by researchers at the Deakin Child Study Centre in collaboration with the AFL, parents, coaches, healthcare professionals and other experts. They include adapting activities to enable success, and increasing the degree of difficulty slowly over time to allow the children to continue to be challenged without becoming disheartened. Other strategies include breaking down drills into more doable components and using visual aids.

The kids may also be paired with older or neurotypical buddies, which offers both children the opportunity to learn values of respect, responsibility, friendship and valuing difference. In playing side-by-side, children of all abilities learn to accept each other and to understand that society comprises all types of people, with all types of abilities.

Everyone can play a role in making our sporting community more inclusive. Professor Nicole Rinehart, of Deakin’s Child Study Centre, says that when some children are excluded from play, it is usually because of the structures and systems in place – not because of the abilities of the kids. The Centre’s research shows that the community wants more inclusive programs, and coaches would like more knowledge about how to modify programs to include kids of all abilities.

That’s why AllPlay Footy is built on a mission to educate and inform, driven by evidence-based resources. These have been made available to everyone online on the AllPlay Footy website: www.allplayfooty.org.au

Coaches and clubs can learn the basics of inclusion and how to modify their programs so everyone can play. Parents can find out what they can do to include kids of all abilities in the sporting community. Healthcare practitioners can access tips and resources to encourage families and kids with disabilities to get active. And kids can read short, engaging stories to learn about NAB AFL Auskick and watch inspirational videos featuring other kids, popular AFL coaches and players.

As Saige and Jodi discovered, the AllPlay programs offer a boost to overall health and wellbeing. The obvious benefit is improved physical health for children who may have had only limited opportunities to be physically active. But the programs also promote enjoyment of sport and enhance emotional and mental health.

"Participation in team sport is a part of a typical Aussie childhood," said Professor Rinehart. "With one in five children experiencing a developmental challenge or disability, it is so important that we break down the barriers to inclusion and learn how to be more welcoming of kids of all abilities."

You can help create a level playing field for children of all abilities by giving to Deakin’s AllPlay program. Every dollar helps and 100% of your donation will support AllPlay’s research efforts and programs.

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