The big show is just one week away, and Austin, Ashlynn and Victoria are hard at work fine-tuning their routines. They’ve been meeting for nearly 12 weeks learning how to tumble, jump, reach and roll and they are more than ready to show off their moves to anyone watching.
“The gymnastics class is where a lot of kids go from “I can’t’ to “I can,”” says Sarah Mulholland, who conceived and launched the program a few years ago. “The goal is to help children with coordination, balance, strength and confidence. They’re working with other children, too, so they’re practicing social skills and having fun all at the same time.”
Sarah was a gymnastics coach in college and taught gymnastics for an additional two years before becoming an occupational therapist. “It was a dream of mine to start a gymnastics group for kids of all abilities,” she says, “so when I presented the idea to CTC to do a gymnastics group for kids with motor and sensory concerns, I was thrilled when they accepted! It’s my favorite part of each week.”
The classes run weekly and are comprised of roughly four children per class. Sarah teaches alongside physical therapist Johanna Madany, and both take an active and watchful role in the class as they encourage the children to work together, follow the routines, and support one another’s accomplishments.
As with any therapy class, there’s more going on than meets the eye. What looks simply like play is actually a highly coordinated activity where children with special needs can practice their skills in a low-pressure environment.
“Kids come into the class with different abilities and it’s nice for them to see that not everyone performs at the same level,” Sarah says. “One child might have a lot of hesitation about moving their head around too much or having their feet off the ground, while another really struggles with following multiple steps in a routine. They watch and learn from each other and often we find they’re more willing to try something if they see another child doing it. A lot of this is about a child learning how to move his or her body in ways that feel safe, and that’s a gradual process.”
It’s not only motivating for the children to work together, there’s also the “cool” factor of gymnastics to be taken into consideration. “It’s appealing to them for that reason. It’s something that ‘typical’ kids get to do, and it makes them feel good to do something other kids can do. The long-term goal is to get them comfortable enough to be able to eventually transition into a community-based class.”
In the meantime, though, there’s an obstacle course to be navigated, yoga poses to practice, and cartwheels to perform. “The grand finale is next week when their parents come to see the show,” Sarah says. “That’s always the highlight of the program!”