It is well-known that children in special education classes benefit from daily sessions of physical movement and play, therefore incorporating it into their school day is a surefire way to increase success. Since obtaining this knowledge, some New Jersey school districts such as Howell, have implemented special needs physical therapy and fun days into their annual curriculum.
Through integration into the curriculum, the school districts try to ensure that these children, many of whom are living with physical disabilities, are given the opportunity to enhance their movement capabilities beyond the time that their regularly held OT and PT sessions permit. In other words, many NJ school districts want to contribute to the betterment of children with special needs and thus afford them the time and resources to have fun and work towards life achievements during school hours, without having to sacrifice their education.
How the programs work
Although the rec days, referred to as Howell Mania in Howell, NJ, do not take place until the end of each school year, preparation begins each September. Each school within the district is given a schedule of days where they will take field trips to the local YMCA and bowling center so students can have fun, move and become stronger. The purposes of these trips are to enhance physical capabilities and assist the progress of each student’s physical movement abilities.
As part of the Howell Mania programs, the bowling trips focus on a student’s ability to use their hands, wrists and upper body in a way that is fun and doesn’t seem like work. The practice of bowling: walking up to the lane with a ball in hand, gearing up and throwing the ball straight down the lane, although seemingly easy to many, could be extremely difficult for children with special needs simply because their muscles cannot move in such a way.
Teachers who chaperone these trips will often work with each student, assisting them in the beginning so they can successfully get the ball to the pins and earn points. However, as the program continues throughout the year, teachers gradually help less and less because each child’s skills generally improve with time.
In comparison, the YMCA swimming field trips help students gain muscle tone and experience free movement. Simply being in a pool for a short amount of time can help a child with a disability move easier. The water loosens up the muscles and gives them a chance to move how they want, not how their muscles are telling them to. While the purpose of swimming on these days is not to become a champion swimmer, the swimming lessons do encourage students to try as hard as they can.
Lifeguards trained to help students with disabilities instruct the group and will regularly hold small, insignificant competitions such as “swim to the end of the lane and back” during the session so their progress can be assessed. Additionally, the lifeguards on duty during these sessions will always assist a child who seems to be struggling because much like the teachers and parents, they want to see each child take milestone steps and become the best swimmer they can be.
What actually happens at Howell Mania
By the end of the year, students have worked hard during their field trips and the Howell school district rewards them with three days of structured fun. These recreational days, Howell Mania, are meant to not only give students a break from their studies and the classroom, but also to highlight their achievements.
Including all special education classes and grades from every school within the district, students are given the chance to compete against their peers and show all of the progress they have made throughout the year. While students in all grade levels participate in the games and competitions, young children in Kindergarten and first grade are never set to compete against much older children in fourth or fifth grade because that would be unfair and only lead to weakened levels of self-confidence. The purpose of these activities is to praise the accomplishments of each child, not set them up for failure and make them feel as though they are not good at the sport.
The bowling competitions, taking place at the Howell Lanes on Rt. 9 South in Howell, NJ, gives each student the opportunity to show that their hand-eye coordination, strength, dexterity and overall fine motor skills have improved to a point where they can shine and be proud of their accomplishments. Additionally, the swimming meets give students a chance to show that their mobility has improved and they can now swim a further distance than they could in September.
One last day of activities, field day games are also thrown into the mix. Although students do not get to experience weekly field trips to prepare for these games, their regularly held gym classes prepare them for this fun day. During the field day, children will be able to compete in 100 meter dashes, long jumps, Frisbee throwing competitions and other fun events. Again, these activities are meant to highlight accomplishments and show children that they are capable of doing things they never thought possible.
At the end of the program
To conclude the Howell Mania program each year, the Howell, NJ school district sets aside time and awards trophies to the participants. While everyone in the program is given a participation trophy because they all have, undoubtedly, made their own accomplishments and personal strives, the organizers of the events also make it a point to reward outstanding performers. For each activity, bowling, swimming and each field day event, three students are always noticed for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The students who have performed exceptionally well in a specific activities are then awarded larger trophies with their name, standing (1st, 2nd or 3rd place), and year of participation engraved on the small trophy plate.
What participants gain from the experience
Students who participate in Howell Mania primarily gain confidence and a sense of pride from the experience. While yes, the school district’s intended purpose of the program is to further OT and PT activities and improve upon the skills children will need in order to gain more independence, many of the children do not view the program in that way. Students participating in the Howell Mania program typically view the entire experience, from the first field trip to the trophy distribution, as moments of fun and play with their classmates. Since many of the students are young and live with developmental and physical delays/impairments, they may not even recognize that everything, the field trips and week of competitions, are connected. Instead, these students take everything in stride and relish in the fact that someone is recognizing their accomplishment of surpassing their previous best.
As they progress through the year and learn new ways to do things that meet their own personal needs, children also gain a sense of pride. The Howell Mania program acts as a support system for special needs students, giving them the encouragement and praise they need so they want to do more and show off their skill. With each small step they make, their teachers, parents and even the school district, are standing alongside them, making sure they know that they have done well. Although it may take longer for some students to accomplish a task, the reassurance that it is possible and they will get there, makes these children proud when they are rewarded at the end of Howell Mania.
Other great resources and activities for children living with developmental or physical disabilities can be found on the FunNewJersey.com special needs page.
Has your child participated in Howell Mania or another program resembling it? If so, what did they think of it?