This new column hopes to share stories of inclusion that schools, educators and children have practised successfully. The stories hope to inspire and convince more schools that an inclusive education is not only possible but also imperative to build a sensitive and empathetic world around us.
Do you remember your school sports day from when you were a child? I have vivid memories of it. Sports day was always held in winter – the hot sun rising slowly above our heads as the day rolled by, playing its own game with the cool breeze that blew across the ground as a respite to the streams of sweat that trickled down the side of our foreheads. At any given point in time, there were groups of children in different corners of the ground. Some in position for their 100m sprint, others warming up for 400m, some stretching before their long jump into the sand pit and a tiny group always huddled at the Glucon-D stall hydrating themselves after their run.
Most of the other children were stationed in the cool shade of the stands watching all the action and screaming and cheering for their House to win. If you were a child who always sat watching in the stands, you will know the urge to want to step onto the sports ground, even if you did it as part of the march-past squad, a sports drill or even at the end of the day when the ground was empty of any action. Unfortunately, the children who sat in the stands never really got a chance to get onto those tracks in all their 12-14 years of school. And the ones who were on the ground, only returned to the stands to stuff their bags with multiple certificates, entangled medals and shining cups.
I didn’t think of it much, back then, as a child. However, as an educator, I’ve always wondered whether it is necessary for events such as sports days to be so exclusive – celebrating only those children who are marinated with sports skills. This is not to take away from the fact that competitive sports always have winners, and a group of children will always be more skilled than the others. (But there are always parallel running programmes to encourage sports talent that must be recognized and nurtured.)What bothers me is that the ‘others’ in most cases don’t even get a glimpse into the experience of what sports has to offer. Which brings me to the question – why do you we practice or teach sports in school?
Do a simple internet search and you’ll find a long list that includes physical fitness, mind-body coordination, confidence-building, leadership, teamwork, patience, and discipline amongst many others. It is obvious then that these skills must not be exclusive only for a few. So how do we ensure that ALL children get a good sports experience throughout the year as well as on that final sports day?
At the school where I work, we were forced to answer this question when a few years ago we had two new admissions, (they were siblings), both with muscular dystrophy (MD) – a genetic condition that causes progressive muscle degeneration. The two children found it difficult to even walk across the school ground, let alone participate in races, volleyball, or any other sport being taught. Being an inclusive school, our sports teachers were skilled enough to handle this situation with care. They ensured that in every sports period the students were divided in smaller groups – while some trained in the main ongoing sport such as volleyball or football, the others played sports like dodgeball, throw-ball, carrom, chess, which enabled participation without the need to run. There were also classes in which half the class did yoga stretches while the other half continued sports training. The groups would eventually swap, so all children got time to train in the main sport as well as other subsidiary sports skills, while the children with MD had a good mix of sports activities to indulge in. This worked very well, but the sports teachers were acutely aware that planning the sports day event was going to be a challenge.
We have a simple philosophy in our school – events must be planned in a way that they are inclusive so that all children get an equal and fair opportunity to participate. Literary events like elocution and poem recitation competitions happen in three languages and children are allowed to participate only in one of them, so they must make a choice, as this enables and encourages as many children as possible to test new waters. For events like annual day and sports day, it is mandatory for ALL children to be part of the event in different capacities, as long as they are actively involved and put different skills to test.
Keeping this philosophy in mind, it wasn’t so difficult after all for our sports teachers to come up with a plan. It was decided that the sports day that year would be themed around ‘teamwork’. The opening drill presentation was a series of functional training exercises in pairs, where partners displayed sets of exercises which required coordination, partner support and constant motivation to keep up and complete. Along with 100m and 200m sprint races, there were also team races inspired by the Minute to Win It games. Every team had a series of tasks that involved sports skills like agility, speed, quick-thinking, strategy, leadership, and teamwork. There were participants who needed to run and others who needed to think and strategize. The team that completed the race first, won and their House got the points! It worked perfectly well for ALL children. We even spun a twist to the all-time favourite relay-race. Instead of passing the baton from one player to the next, they passed pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle that had to be assembled at a station 50m away from the Finish Line. Once done, the team would have to recognize the sports person in the puzzle and then the last team player would run to the Finish Line with the completed puzzle.
A format like this is very doable, even in schools with large numbers of children. It is inclusive and many more children are involved and experiencing the skills, the joy, and the adrenaline that sports offers. There is a feeling of competition, there is a sense of belonging and the idea of victory and pride sets in alongside teamwork. The victory stand plays a less important role and the focus shifts to House points – a wonderfully subtle way to obfuscate the ‘I’ and move towards a ‘WE’.
And amidst all of this, it builds empathy – an objective that schools seem to have forgotten to inculcate in their educational agenda.
Including children with different abilities – physical or intellectual – is not as difficult as it may seem. Especially when a little 9-year-old says “Miss, this was the first sports day I ever participated in and for the first time I felt no different from any of the other children.” I am sure that if this sports day made such a lasting impact on this one child, it must have made an even deeper impact on all the other children who experienced joy along with her.
The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She has been working with children from different backgrounds for the past 15 years and is an advocate of ‘inclusive education’. She is currently the Executive Director of an inclusive not-for-profit ICSE school in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.