Kinesiology students hang ten with special needs children

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Adaptive physical education program uses ocean as a classroom

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 20, 2011 – There is a sense of freedom that comes with catching a wave from the perch of a surfboard. It’s a feeling of joy and accomplishment rolled into one for those several blissful seconds of gliding toward the shore.

University of Rhode Island students in Assistant Professor Emily Clapham’s kinesiology class provided several special needs children with all of those experiences during a recent afternoon of surfing at Narragansett Town Beach. As part of the adaptive physical education course, 15 URI students worked individually with children who deal with various issues, ranging from Down syndrome and autism to attention deficit disorder.

Clapham’s students work year-round with the young people – who range in age from 8 through 23 – through the University’s aquatics program. On June 8, they helped the kids hang ten.

“I think the students get a lot more out of hands-on experiences versus sitting in a classroom,” said Clapham, herself a surfer. “Especially working with the children, having the give and take and getting that experience. It is what they are going to be doing in the future in their teaching positions.”

As part of the adaptive physical education certification program, students are required to have 45 contact hours with special needs children. This summer, the students also volunteered their services during Special Olympics Rhode Island, held on campus earlier this month.

“It is very rewarding to be able to work directly with the kids and feel like you are able to make a difference in their lives,” said Eligio Vuono, a junior kinesiology major from Westerly. “This experience and working with kids at the Special Olympics have made me more interested in the adaptive physical education program.”

The URI students learn skills that enable them to alter their teachings in any physical education program to meet the needs of each individual child they work with.

“What we see through the aquatics program is that being in the water is very soothing for the kids,” said Jon Sayer, a senior kinesiology major from Richmond. “They develop a sense of weightlessness that gives their body a better range of motion because they relax more. They may not be able to move their limbs as much on land, but when they are in the water, you see how much more they are capable of doing.”

More than a learning experience for the students, Clapham’s students are doing important outreach in the community, building connections with the youngsters and their families. Kevin Laralla’s son, Bryce, has been involved with the aquatics program for the last eight years. The impact on his son, who has Down syndrome, has been great.

“Bryce is a sociable person, and he loves dealing with the other participants in the program, the students, and, of course, Emily,” Kevin Laralla said. “He has experienced so much growth through the years, whether it has been physical improvement through exercise and swimming, or the social growth, it helps every aspect of his life. The bonds he has developed with the students, it just means so much to him.”

Described by his father as a “seal,” Bryce loves the water. He’s a well-rounded athlete who captured a pair of gold medals at Special Olympics Rhode Island, winning the 50-meter run and the softball toss. He is non-verbal, but communicates in many other ways, including sign language.

“Bryce loves working with the young people at URI,” Laralla said. “For the students, it’s a hands-on opportunity to work with the special needs children, which is important in their learning process. As parents, we have to trust the URI students with our kids, whether it’s in the pool or out in the ocean. These students earn that trust, because they work so well with the kids.”

The surfing day was made possible in large part by the generosity of local professional surfer and URI alumnus Peter Pan, who donated all the surfboards and wetsuits for the students and children.

“Anything to do with URI, I am going to support it,” Pan said. “I’ve known Emily Clapham for years, since she started the surfing club at Chariho High School, and we’ve worked together on programs wherever she has been.”

The Cranston native first started surfing in Narragansett when he was 14 and spent so much time riding waves, his parents bought a house for him to live in while he attended classes at URI. He still owns the house today, and he and his family run Narragansett Surf and Skate Shop (formerly Gansett Juice).

“Even a lot of people who go to URI have no idea how fortunate we are to have this gem of a beach here,” said Pan, who praised Narragansett Parks and Recreation Director Barry Fontaine for partnering with the University and other groups for such programs.

“How many places can use the ocean as a hands-on learning experience like this? This is the kind of classroom experience that sets URI apart.”

Pictured above

URI junior Eligio Vuono (blue shorts) works with Bryce Laralla (on surfboard) and Kevin Laralla (wetsuit) as part of an adaptive physical education class held at Narragansett Town Beach.

URI students got hands-on experience teaching special needs children how to surf during a kinesiology class held earlier this month.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photos by Michael Salerno Photography.