If you’ve ever been to one of our “E” programs across the Bay Area, you know that it is a place where families feel accepted and their kids feel included. Parents of children with special needs often feel wary of bringing their child into a new environment because adjusting to a change of scenery and routine can be very tough for some kids.
One of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced as a volunteer for E-Soccer is getting to see the major growth that takes place throughout the course of even one season. I see kids go from being completely disengaged and running off the field to passing the ball to their teammates and even scoring goals in a scrimmage at the end of the season. This past season I saw one child go from being completely inconsolable when he lost possession of the ball to actually passing the ball to his teammates and learning to self-regulate his emotions when the other team scored or he didn’t get a pass. It was amazing to see him learn to cooperate with and value the other players, passing to them to let them have a chance to score a goal, whereas before he would just take the ball all the way down the field to the goal.
Parents want to know what they’re getting into when they take their child to a new setting, especially if they’ve had to remove their child from situations in the past that were too challenging. So here are few things one can expect from a season of E-soccer:
1. Full Inclusion
Your child is non-verbal? No problem. She can’t stand up, let alone run on her own? We’ll pair her with a buddy that can support her and stay with her the whole time. Is your child known for throwing temper tantrums at the most inconvenient times? That’s perfectly normal as far as we’re concerned. You won’t have to worry about being told that your child will get playing time eventually, when the team’s score is far enough ahead. And your child doesn’t need an ounce of prior experience before stepping onto the field. S/he doesn’t even need to know what a soccer ball is, for that matter. Half the time we make up fun names for it anyway, like a puppy or a jelly bean, depending on what activity we’re doing or what time of year it is. Every child is included, 100% of the time.
One parent that has brought out his whole family to E-Soccer for years, commented on his initial experience:
“The first time we went out to E-Soccer, we were so nervous about being accepted. Both of our boys weren’t really into sports, and their special needs could sometimes result in pretty severe tantrums. When we got out to the field, the first thing I saw was a dad laying on the grass with his son, rubbing his back while his son was crying and having a really difficult time. What amazed me was that no one was staring or making critical remarks (all what we experienced in the past). All the spectators and kids were accepting and totally unphased. At that moment I knew this was the place for my family!”
2. Friendships and Social Development
If your child has special needs, he or she has probably experienced some level of isolation. Some kids who participate in E-Soccer are homeschooled or don’t participate in the after-school activities where typical kids forge friendships, learn how to work as a team, and develop critical social skills. E-Soccer gives every kid those opportunities. They learn not only to work together, but to care about each other. As they learn simple soccer skills side-by-side, they become conscientious of the other players’ needs.
Your child will be paired either with a volunteer coach (typically a college student or young professional) or a kid with typical needs that will stick with your child and be their “buddy” for the day. We try to keep the helpers consistent with each child because we know how important routine can be to making a child feel comfortable; it is also helpful for developing skills specific to your child’s needs.
3. A Break for Parents
I’m sure you love your kids, but every parent needs a break once in awhile. For many parents, a Saturday morning at E-Soccer is one of the only breaks they get throughout the week from kids that demand a lot of attention and energy. I love seeing the shoulders of parents on the sidelines relax as they watch their kids run out on the field because they know their kids are in good hands. The kids run back joyfully to their parents at each water break, which I typically use as an opportunity to connect with the parent of the child I’m working with, and get to know a little more about child’s needs, strengths, interests, etc. in order to maximize my effectiveness with him/her and make it an enjoyable experience. For instance, if his favorite animal is a lion, I might have him pretend we are lions chasing our prey (the soccer ball) across the field. If she really likes superheroes, I might tie an imaginary cape around her neck and pretend we are flying to fight crime as we participate in a running drill around the field.
What I love about E-Soccer is that there is no one set formula for how to run things. Everything is adaptable, and we are always learning what works for some kids and what may not work as well for others. If the kids just aren’t getting a drill, we might just scrap it and come up with something simpler or more familiar. We challenge the kids and encourage them to persevere, but we don’t expect them to go at a pace faster than they can handle.
Regardless of his/her pace, strength, or ability to communicate independently, each child is respected and valued. We love seeing new faces as well as watching familiar ones grow and develop over time. It’s a great experience for kids of all ages, whether they are typically-developing or have severe challenges compared to the average child, and it is this inclusive environment that fosters community, understanding, and compassion.