A special P.E. class helps kids find their balance

Summer Stevens comes out of a tunnel, part of an obstacle course. - Sam Emmons photo
Summer Stevens comes out of a tunnel, part of an obstacle course.
— image credit: Sam Emmons photo

Some afternoons, an obstacle course takes up much of the McMurray Middle School gym. Students in a fifth-period physical education class maneuver under, over and through the course. Some zip through it, while others take their time.

The students are taking part in McMurray’s Challenge P.E. class, which is designed to fit the ability levels of those in the course.

It’s an integrated class that brings typically developing students together with those who have physical or other limitations that make it difficult for them to participate in a traditional physical education class, said Greg Allison, McMurray principal.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve felt comfortable in P.E., and for others, it’s a chance to take part in activities they haven’t done before.

“It’s awesome,” said eighth-grader Hayden Cromwell of Challenge P.E.

This is Cromwell’s first year at McMurray. He said he’d seen obstacle courses at his former school in Sumner.

“What I like about P.E. is that I’ve seen it a lot myself and wanted to do it myself,” he said. “I love being in an obstacle course.”

Each day, students begin class with a lap around the McMurray soccer fields. Just like in the obstacle course, some run the entire track while others take a more leisurely stroll.

“I just like running,” said seventh-grader Chelsea Griffith of her time in Challenge P.E.

The group warms up together, stretching and using medicine balls for strength and agility training.

The rest of the class is devoted to the obstacle course, group sports and bike riding.

The afternoon course is “adaptive P.E.,” in which students do many of the same things as their peers in traditional classes — but in a way that’s suited to their needs.

Sometimes, kids and instructors play kickball with balloons, volleyball with beach balls, or dodgeball with spongy balls.

The students even recently took part in a mock bus emergency drill, exiting the bus through its rear door, said Karen Stendahl, a special education teacher at McMurray.

It is the hope of P.E. teacher Bob Cannell to have two “mentors,” or typically developing kids, in the class for each student with special needs, he said. This semester there are only a few mentors because of scheduling issues.

The students currently in Challenge P.E. have a spectrum of needs, Stendahl said, “from physical disability to autism to Down Syndrome.”

Instead of incorporating students with limitations into a traditional physical education class and hoping they adapt, Cannell creates a course with appropriate modifications to the traditional curriculum.

“My theory is to do it the other way around, and have the regular-ed kids adapt,” he said.

Mentors assist, encourage and serve as role models in class, he said.

Cannell started the class about 15 years ago, when a parent of a student with limitations approached him about creating a course that was appropriate for her child. Cannell offered Challenge P.E., and football players served as the course’s mentors.

The class has been offered off and on since then, whenever there is interest.

There are approximately 30 students in McMurray’s special education program, Stendahl said. Like their peers, these students have six-period days and may take electives such as Spanish or outdoor survival.

She said students thrive in Challenge P.E.

“It helps physical dexterity and balance across the board,” Stendahl said.

Some students become better listeners and communicators, while others gain confidence among their peers.

“It’s not just doing the hokey-pokey,” said Kathy Smith, a paraeducator in the class. Cannell “takes whatever the seventh- or eighth-graders are doing and just adapts it.”

There is no similar class at Vashon High School, she added. She and others hope a program will be created there as well.

“It’s a pretty neat program that Bob has put together,” Allison said. “The more we’re teaching kids to be aware and tolerant of everybody, I think that promotes a positive school climate. ... Especially for this age group developmentally, it’s really a fantastic program.”

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