On a recent Thursday evening, a group of children and adults circled around a colorful parachute in the small gym at the Tiffin YMCA. Next, the children bounced a ball inside each hula hoop lined up on the floor and did a two-footed jump into each. Adults assisted or accompanied those who needed extra help, and one or two children chose to watch without getting involved. A scooter race and a quick kickball game finished out the activities.
This was the weekly session of the special needs family activities class that began about a month ago. Funded by a grant, the program is open to Y members and non-members for free. Every Thursday at 6:15 p.m., children, siblings, parents and other family members and friends spend 30 minutes in the gym for games and activities with their special needs loved ones of kindergarten age and older.
After that, participants don swimming attire for 30 minutes in the pool. Children learn pool rules and receive swimming instruction, according to their ages and skill levels. Sometimes, activities from the gym can be adapted for the water to reinforce certain concepts. The children are invited, but not forced, to participate in any of the non-competitive activities.
Leading the class is Erin Lawrence, an educator certified in teaching emotionally disturbed children with behavior issues. She has worked in the field for eight years at a school in Fremont. Now, she has students in grades 1-4.
"My mom (Rudy Lawrence) did it for 27 years in Tiffin, so I just kind of fell in love with her profession. I picked up a lot from her," Lawrence said.
Also, she has a nephew with autism. When Steve Crone took over as director at the Tiffin Y, Lawrence asked him if she could teach a basic swim class for special needs children. In addition to swimming skills, the children could interact with one another and learn to control their emotions in various situations.
The classes did get under way, with good results. Lawrence and swim instructor Ashley Hopple reviewed pool rules about walking on the wet deck and other behaviors for safety. The children learned about blowing bubbles, kicking and arm strokes using noodles, balls and singing games. Lawrence found the children with lower skills were modeling what more advanced students were doing.
"It was just amazing to watch. Kids who had no idea how to put their head under the water, after two classes, would watch other kids jump in and put their head under. They'd be terrified, but then they'd watch and model what the other ones did," Lawrence said. "That's why I like the group aspect of it, because they can learn off of each other, not just from me or the other teacher."
The better swimmers can go in the big pool while the others stay in the learning pool. Although Lawrence's nephew has outgrown the class, he did learn to swim, as did many other children. The class has continued and has grown. Lawrence said she uses many demonstrations and establishes a routine, which special needs children like. That same approach also works well in the gym. She said teaching dry land activities is a new experience for her.
"I always was a swimmer, and then I taught swimming and coached swimming in college for the Y, but I never taught gross motor skills," Lawrence said.
Molly Lofton is the senior activities director at the YMCA, and it was she who applied for the grant from the Great Lakes Collaborative for Autism. Having known Lofton from growing up at the YMCA, Lawrence was pleased to have her help to obtain funding and line up people to help with the classes. Lofton also assists Lawrence when needed.
Lofton and Hopple became acquainted with Sandy Hallett during a summer working at the city pool. Hallett's son Ryan is autistic, but swimming is a favorite pastime of his, so they became regulars at the pool. Hallett and Amber Stover, another parent with an autistic child, are the founders of Seneca Autism Learning and Support Association. They were pleased when Lofton participated in a SALSA fundraiser.
"I volunteered to help with 'Give Autism the Boot' and got information about a grant opportunity," Lofton said. "Dr. Amber Stover helped me to write the grant. We have always had the swim classes, but we wanted to add the family activities night."
The Toledo-based Great Lakes Collaborative for Autism awarded $3,000 to the Tiffin YMCA last November, which was enough time to order equipment and get started in January. Lofton said the special needs classes will continue for two more seven-week sessions before taking a break in the summer.
"We wanted to do a phys ed class, and we thought this would be a good way to get the community involved," Hallett said. "We have kids with a lot of different disabilities."
A large portion of the grant was used to purchase equipment for the gym class, with an emphasis on backyard and schoolyard games. Lofton ordered Frisbees, an obstacle course, scooters, bases for kickball and T-ball/baseball, and a variety of balls, including some with different surfaces and softness for sensory stimulation.
"We started with the basics, because we have all different ability levels as well as developmental and age levels. The big thing I like to focus on is working together with peers and following directions of adults," Lawrence said.
The children are divided into small groups and practice skills such as tossing a ball underhand or overhand, playing catch and trading places. Those activities are transferred to a basic kickball game where children learn to throw the ball back to the pitcher, kick the ball and run bases in the correct order. Watching one another and reviewing what they learned previously also helps the children to catch on, Lawrence said.
"It's a work in progress. There's no doubt about it," she added.
Hallett said about eight families have been coming on a regular basis, but there is no limit on the size of the class. New people can join the group at any point because the curriculum is adapted to the needs of the children attending. They do need to register at the front desk before starting the program, and an adult must accompany each special needs child. Call the YMCA at (419) 447-8711 for more information.
Lofton said she is to attend a meeting soon to find out how to re-apply for the grant and continue the program this fall. Adults whose children took part in the gym activities are were asked to fill out a survey when the class started and another is to be completed at the conclusion of the program. These will be returned to GLCFA for evaluation and will help determine eligibility for another grant.