Surf’s up for URI graduate student bringing surf therapy program to Australia

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Kelli Hingerton
Kelli Hingerton, a graduate student at URI, surfs with a child at Narragansett Town Beach. Photo by Corey Favino, a photography student at URI.

KINGSTON, R.I., July 12, 2016—Surf’s up, mate. In a few days, Kelli Hingerton will be teaching children with disabilities how to hang 10 in Australia.

Hingerton, a 21-year-old graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, will launch a surf therapy program for students at the Darnanup Primary School and three other nearby schools in South Bunbury, a coastal town in the western part of the country.

“This is my dream,’’ says Hingerton. “Surfing has always been a part of my life. To be able to share that passion with children across the world is exciting.’’

Emily Clapham, an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Health Sciences, created the program in 2010 at Narragansett Town Beach, but this is the first effort to bring it to an international group.

The program pairs URI students with children who have various disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy and developmental delays.

Clapham says the benefits of surfing therapy are tremendous. Her studies show that surfing improves core strength, balance, upper body strength and cardio-respiratory endurance. It also boosts self-esteem and confidence—maybe its greatest advantages.

“Many children, especially children with autism spectrum disorder, get into a routine that’s hard to break out of,’’ says Clapham. “It’s even difficult to get them engaged in physical activity. Our research on surf therapy demonstrates that surfing empowers with the willingness to try new things. It also allows them to interact with their peers and teachers and be physically active at the same time, improving psychomotor and social skills simultaneously.’’

Both Hingerton and Clapham are avid surfers who believe in the calming and spiritual benefits of the activity. Clapham has been surfing at the beaches in Westerly, South Kingstown and Narragansett since she was a kid.

At URI, she studied physical education and earned her doctorate in teaching and curriculum at Boston University. Shortly after joining URI in 2009, she launched the surf therapy program.

Over the years, it has grown from 15 participants the first year to about 60 today. Most of the surfers are from Rhode Island; some come from as far away as Massachusetts. Sponsors cover the cost of wet suits and boards.

Hingerton also started surfing as a child, but at Long Beach on Long Island. “It was my version of flying. Surfing is also a real community, a way of life.’’ She chose URI for college because it’s close to a beach. She spent hours surfing in her free time as an undergraduate studying kinesiology.

When she heard about Clapham’s program, she jumped at the opportunity to help. It’s enormously satisfying, she says, to see the transformation. At first, children are afraid to touch the water; after a few sessions, they run to it.

“It’s great to see them overcome all the odds stacked against them,’’ says Hingerton, who graduated in the spring and is now pursuing her master’s degree. “They can do everything we do. They just do it their own way.’’

Emily Clapham
Emily Clapham, an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, surfs on a red surfboard with a child at Narragansett Town Beach. Photo by Corey Favino, a photography student at URI

Clapham and Hingerton made the Australian connection during an international education conference in Hawaii during the winter break. Clapham was teaching a J-term course in Hawaii; Hingerton was taking the class. The two gave a research presentation about the program, and Melanie Clarke, principal of the Australian school, was in the audience.

Afterward, she popped the question: Any interest in coming to Australia?

“She showed me a photo of her school right on the beach, and there was no turning back,’’ says Hingerton. “I was hooked.’’

She plans to leave July 21 and live with Clarke and her family. So far, 35 kids in the school have signed up. Other schools in the district have also shown an interest in participating.

Clapham is expected to join Hingerton for two weeks in the fall to help her get started, but, for the most part, Hingerton is on her own until she returns in mid-November. Her experience will become her thesis for her master’s in education.

Clapham has no doubt Hingerton will thrive.

“She’s been a great student, and this is a wonderful opportunity,’’ says Clapham. “She’s going to do a terrific job in Australia. I’m excited to see our program grow at the international level, and I’m hoping that more countries will view the sport of surfing as a therapeutic model for children with disabilities.”

“We want this to go global,’’ says Hingerton. “We want it to go to every continent. That would be awesome.’’

For now, Australia is the prize. The University will be justly honored with a new slogan: “URI Catching Waves for Health, Australia.’’