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Improving Swimming Skills and Confidence for Children with Disabilities
A new pediatric Adaptive Aquatics class offered by the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences and Brooks Rehabilitation is making swimming accessible and fun.
Six-year-old Max was terrified of getting water on his face. His anxiety was so extreme that it was a struggle even to get him in the shower or to brush his teeth. Never mind cooling off at the pool with friends on a hot summer afternoon in St. Augustine.
After making gains in one-on-one therapy sessions with an occupational therapist from Brooks Rehabilitation, Max was referred to the new pediatric Adaptive Aquatics class at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. The class is a recent collaboration with the Brooks Pediatric Recreation program, which introduces children with disabilities to traditional sports and activities in ways that make them accessible.
The six-week aquatics class is overseen by University of St. Augustine occupational therapy instructor Kayla Collins, in conjunction with Brooks Pediatric Recreation program staff, and supported by students in the Master of Occupational Therapy and Doctor of Physical Therapy programs. Together, they lead activities that focus on swimming skills, motor coordination, social skills, and self-confidence for around 20 participants in the university’s Wellness Center, which has a special therapy pool.
“One of the biggest issues for children with disabilities is being comfortable with their peers,” says Collins. “When they are unable to keep up at recess or have trouble in traditional sports programs, they lose confidence and withdraw. “The adapted aquatics program provides them with an outlet for participation. As therapists, our goal is to help people improve their skills and participation, but also to help them feel able and motivated to continue to participate in activities that may be challenging.
“On the first day of class you can see that the kids are shy and nervous about the pool and activities, but by the end of the session they are jumping into the deep end, talking to their new friends, and excited to be there. Parents of the children have commented on the improvements they see in their physical abilities, social interaction, and enthusiasm for the water.”
Max’s mom is no exception.
“In that short amount of time, in a peer setting, under the guidance of the wonderful staff there, we just went to a Fourth of July BBQ where he was swimming without his swimmy on, jumping off the side of the pool with kids he just met, and swimming underwater,” says Max’s mother, Christie.
“All the students have been so encouraging, and you can tell they are very patient with the kids. For both my kids that has just been such a self-esteem confidence booster. They feel like they can hang in a group setting and do a physical activity that doesn’t just come naturally to them.”
Jenna Marshall was one of the second-term Master of Occupational Therapy students helping to lead the class. “Usually fieldwork is more observation-based rather than hands-on. This experience was very hands-on,” she says. “We were doing the planning. We were in the pool with the kids. As a student, it was a really good experience.
“I worked with Max the first week, and he would not get his head wet at all,” she adds. “The following week he came up to me and said ‘look what I can do’ and put his head all the way under water. By the end of the session, he was doing flips under the water.”
With the approaching school year on her mind, Christie adds, “That translates for these kids into more confidence at school and in their schoolwork, and wanting to raise their hand and answer in front of their peers. It’s self-confidence.”
The Brooks Pediatric Recreation Program was established as a full-time program in January 2016. “Our program is designed to offer recreation opportunities to children with various difficulties/disabilities similar to those of the typical population,” says Megan Hyman, coordinator of the program. “As clinicians, we see how important a supportive continuum of care is for children with special needs and their families, and the impact it has on their quality of life. As parents, we all want a place for our children to be accepted, to be successful, to belong!”
The university and Brooks plan to offer the aquatics class again in the fall, and Brooks is looking to expand its land-based sports program to St. Augustine. That will create more opportunities for local children and for University of St. Augustine MOT and DPT students to gain real-world experience in fieldwork and internship experiences.