This article was originally posted on Huffingpost.com
It’s true that many special needs conditions can’t be cured. But with the right tools, the right mindset, and the right activities, they can be managed — and there may be more therapies around than you think. Children with special needs deserve to live happy, fulfilling lives rich with creativity, imagination, and purpose, and everyday, we’re discovering better ways to help them do just that.
It’s no surprise that special needs students require a lot of careful, structured time that is interesting and enriching. They certainly have deep imaginations, and are capable, like all children, of creating lush, exciting worlds inside their heads. In order to achieve this, however, the adults in their lives have to provide extra guidance and creativity in structuring their activities.
Sadly, while special needs students can benefit more from this sort of structured activity, they are less likely to experience it. A report from Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute found a significant gap between the general population and special needs students in experiencing such cultural activities.
But there are organizations bucking this trend, and providing special needs students with chances to live more fulfilling lives. A great example is The SAILS Group’s, Kids First Foundation’s and Patterns Behavioral Services’ structured ABA Programs.
Online gaming and special needs students
One area that has proven extremely useful as enrichment for special needs students is online gaming. Interestingly enough, we’re not referring to games originally designed for educational or therapeutic purposes.
Open-world, immersive online games like Minecraft are highly suitable for special needs students. In this game, players gather resources and build creations one block at a time, limited only by their imagination and effort.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Minecraft has been celebrated for its success as a medium, as people have built a huge range of places and objects on the program, including bygone ancient cities, fantastical locales from Lord of the Rings, and even 1:1 scale digital spaceships.
One Sydney school has turned to Minecraft as an educational tool, even going so far as to create lesson plans and units for other teachers who wish to do the same thing. By networking and collaborating with both online and real life players, special needs students have made huge strides in improving their social and mental skills.
Building discipline and confidence through ballet
Adults practice Latin dance, from salsa to bachata, to build their social confidence and rhythm. Special needs students do the same with ballet.
The inspiring success stories from Britain’s Flamingo Chicks dance school — an operation with outposts in several British cities — have been at the forefront of this. As an immersive program, Flamingo Chicks involves both special needs and regular students, allowing everyone to mingle in a safe, open environment with ample adult supervision. In fact, Flamingo Chicks has even created peer support groups for parents with their own activities, allowing parents of regular students to learn from and commiserate with those of special needs children.
The program has been successful as well, aiding individual improvements in areas such as flexibility, socialization, and discipline. It’s also highly sought after, with 100 families applying for 15 slots.
Reconnecting with the outdoors
Hippotherapy came about almost by accident; after an occupational therapist brought a patient to a horse farm, she was intrigued to find that the girl, nonverbal for a year, began to sing. The pattern of breakthroughs repeated itself with a cerebral palsy patient who began to walk with crutches.
Later was it discovered that horseback riding could enhance spatial awareness, focus, and attention — key traits for special needs students. What began as a hunch and an observation has now evolved into a full-time therapy center, built around horses and equestrianism.
Common trends in helping special needs children
Now that we have examined the clever, unorthodox organizations and ideas that are making a positive impact on special needs students, let’s take a look at the common criteria. While none of the activities and safe spaces are exactly alike, they all share some noteworthy guidelines that may prove helpful to parents, educators, and policymakers looking to make a difference.
Interactive is best
All of the previous activities and safe spaces are interactive, hands-on projects in one way or another. Often, students can see the tangible fruits of their labor; gathering and using resources in Minecraft will yield a fully formed (if digital) world, while ballet recitals are borne of hard, dedicated practice.
In all the cases we reviewed here, a sense of accomplishment is best reinforced with an actual, physical product. This serves to link the efforts of the student with a clear, palpable, and positive result.
A structured, organized environment with clear rules and goals
Special needs students, by their very nature, thrive in organized environments with little ambiguity and confusion.
All of the examples presented have well-defined rules and objectives. For instance, ballet is a challenging physical discipline — but a highly structured one with a clear progression of learning, differentiated levels of skill, and rules about what can and cannot be done. The same could be said for Minecraft, horseback riding, or gardening — each area has a concrete, unambiguous format for its participants to exercise their bodies and minds.
The environment as a gateway to success
So what is the result of these interactive, engaging activities? From ballet to Minecraft, gardening to equestrianism, sports to puzzles, such a disparate set of pursuits can provide surprisingly similar results.
If done right, they are a gateway to expression and understanding for special needs students. In each case, such students took away valuable life lessons, not necessarily from classroom lectures, but from learning, creating, and most of all, exploring for themselves. The proper practice of ballet gives students core strength, coordination, and even the ability to tell stories and understand characters. Minecraft, played with a friend or sibling, can assist students in collaboration and world-building, skills that are valuable in areas ranging from the classroom to, eventually, the boardroom.
A challenge for all of us
It’s true that many special needs students may never be 100% like their siblings and other kids. But with creativity, lateral thinking, and the courage to try new, diverse solutions can lead to a richer, more fulfilling life for them — and for all of us, as well.