Fun Activities For the Special Education Classroom
By Carol Lee McCulloch
Interactive approaches are the primary focus for these classroom activities that get students moving. Get the body moving, keep the mind moving--and be SMART about it!
Moving Is the Key
The word "activity" makes one think about moving! Moving the body, moving the mind, or moving the spirit--all are on the "active radar screen" and, for that reason, everyone is capable of some sort of activity. This most certainly includes the special needs student, and thanks to a variety of opportunities in today's world, these kids and adults are making huge strides in the academic and social arenas!
Moving Is SMART
Designed by professional physical therapists, the Stimulating Maturity Through Accelerated Readiness (S.M.A.R.T.) Curriculum "helps children develop the skills that are essential for classroom learning," says Josh Orpen, Communications Coordinator of the Minnesota Learning Resource Center. The program's multi-sensory activities provide tools for training the brainstem to develop auditory, visual and motor functions. Examples include:
1) Alligator Crawl--crawling on the stomach across a padded surface while using the opposite arm and leg simultaneously. Arms should extend as they reach, the inside of the foot should dig in as it pushes off, and hands and chest should be flat on the floor. This helps develop basic level coordination and integrate both sides of the brain.
2) Balance Beams--Walking forward, heel-to-toe with eyes open and watching the beam. After this is mastered, try carrying a book, walking backwards, or stepping over the objects on the beam. This helps develop balance and body awareness skills that help students sit still in class.
As a volunteer with Oklahoma's Special Olympics Program for many years, Aaron Ashworth has taught numerous sports and life skills activities. He offers several specifics for the middle- and high-school level that have produced exceptional positive effects. Swimming, weight lifting, volleyball and soccer, as well as wheelchair basketball, all provide opportunities for the physically or mentally challenged student. "We also found that including teachers, other students, coaches and even parents in some of these extra-curricular activities brought about a better understanding of the obstacles faced by the special needs student or athlete."
Other areas of thinking out of the box include partnering with your school's Student Council or Honor Society to plan and perform community works projects. Special needs students need more community exposure to be better equipped to accomplish goals independently. Whether it's simple bookkeeping or sales skills, or training for various store or restaurant positions, businesses need to know that the special needs population is capable and willing to carry its own weight in society.
"It took less than two years for many of our students to reach their full potential when we allowed them the prep and work experience they needed," Ashworth said. "How exciting to see how they surprised the community, all because a teacher or coach took time to make ordinary activities more inviting and workable!"
Make Math a Moving Experience
Ellen Notbohm, a 2010 silver medal-winning author, challenges teachers to teach math and spelling kinesthetically. "Allow your special needs child to make his or her own manipulatives in a manner that interest him," she says. Rhythmic music also encourages patterned thinking and is most effective in teaching or practicing arithmetic tables or counting.
Another creative math activity calls for couching problems in active terms. For example, instead of presenting written division problems, have the student actually divide or cut pieces of pretzels, bananas, or even clay and separate into equal parts. Kids on the autism spectrum in particular are more visual and this activity is easily comprehended. Color-coding different mathematical operations is great for quick recognition response: green for subtraction, red for adding, and so on.
And don't forget the latest technological advances to enhance your range of activities. Many school systems use whiteboards or SMART boards to make learning come alive; however, according to Charlie Onega, Instructional Technology Coordinator with the Illinois Beach Park School District, there is another alternative that works especially well in the special needs classroom. With the installation of Brightlink interactive projectors, special education teachers are designing even more resources specifically for their students with disabilities. These projectors can be used without customized software and may use any surface as a screen. "The cost is even more in sync with our budget," he says. Online lessons, technology activities and supply suggestions can be found on teacher Brook Turk's website. By utilizing Brightlinks, Brooke Turk posts a number of classroom projects for her special needs students on a regular basis.
Bottom line is to keep your kids moving in body, mind, and spirit when doing special ed classroom activities. Your extra involvement may just produce students who don't settle for being "a basic box of crayons, but who want to become a box beaming with multi-colored talents!"
Ellen Notbohm, author of 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's, 2010 silver medal winner, Independent Book Publishers
Charlie Onega, Instructional Technology Coordinator, Illinois Beach Park School District #3
Aaron Ashworth, Catoosa, OK, Shadow Mountain Behavioral Health Hospital, Special Olympics Program and Recipient of a Special Olympics "Volunteer of the Year Award" (currently serving in the armed forces)