In early 2007, Special Olympics created this pilot program to reach out to children with intellectual disabilities ages 3 to 7, and to welcome them and their families to the Special Olympics movement.
Through Young Athletes, volunteers introduce young children to the world of sport, with the goal of preparing them for Special Olympics Missouri sports training and competition at age 8. The program focuses on the basics that are crucial to cognitive development: physical activities that develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and the application of these physical skills through sports skills programs.
More than 250 children are currently participating in the Young Athletes program throughout Missouri. For many of their families, this is their first introduction to Special Olympics and the resources and support we offer for children (and adults) with intellectual disabilities. We are already seeing positive results from helping these children improve physically, cognitively and socially.
Social and communications development
Improved social skills are another inspiring reason parents enroll their children in SOMO Young Athletes. The confidence boost makes it easier for them to interact with other children on the playground, whether or not they have intellectual disabilities.
Reports from parents are encouraging, and the science looks promising, too. Preliminary findings from a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts suggest that participation in Young Athletes may lead to improvements in motor development, social and emotional development and communication development.
The program made its global debut in fall 2007 at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China.
This program is designed to address two specific levels of play. Level 1 includes physical activities focused on developing fundamental motor tracking and eye-hand coordination. Level 2 concentrates on the application of these physical activities through a sports skills activity program and developing skills consistent with Special Olympics sports play. The activities will consist of foundational skills, walking & running, balance, and jumping, trapping & catching, throwing, striking, kicking and advanced skills.
Types of Programs
SOMO is currently running 8-week programs through YMCAs and schools throughout our seven geographic areas, as well as Saturday morning programs. There are two ways the program may be offered.
1. The Young Athletes Program (YAP) can be offered at home by a family member or friend. These volunteers become play pals on a one-on-one basis with their family member. This would be called a Young Athletes Home Program.
2. The second option offers a YAP as a site program. A site program may be a school or agency such as a Parks & Recreation Department, hospital, daycare, ARC, UCP, YMCA, and church or camp. The agency agrees to offer the program under the name of Special Olympics Missouri Young Athletes Program. A site program may also be under the direction of a volunteer approved by Special Olympics Missouri Area Program who finds a donated site to conduct activities.
Both types of groups will follow all guidelines for the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program. Group sites must have at least 6 registered Young Athletes to begin a program and receive an equipment kit free of charge.
Special Olympics Missouri is meeting the need for these kinds of activities for children with intellectual disabilities in Missouri. The demand for our Young Athletes program is high, and funding is key. Private donations are needed to grow and sustain this program, and gifts to the SOMO Endowment Fund will support this effort long-term. Contributions can be made through a variety of planned giving options, including some that provide donors with fixed income and considerable tax deductions.
Young Athletes Equipment
Young Athletes Activity Guide
Young Athletes Resources
To learn more about the Young Athletes programs in your area, contact your area director. For more information, resources or material on the Young Athletes initiative please visit http://www.specialolympics.org/youngathletes.