The school playground should be a place to run, laugh and relax with friends. But it’s not uncommon for kids with special needs to find themselves on the outside, looking in.
Sometimes they’re excluded by their classmates. Other times, they choose to stay away from the crowds because too much noise, sudden movements or certain sights or smells make them anxious.
The “Friendly Fridays” program at Redmond’s Norman Rockwell Elementary School is striving to foster empathy for peers with developmental disabilities and to help the special-needs students feel more comfortable in social settings such as recess.
On Fridays, during lunch recess, sixth graders from Rockwell’s Student Council set up three different areas in the playground where the special-needs children are invited to play quiet games, active games such as jump-rope or hop-scotch and throwing games such as tossing a velcro frisbee or beach ball.
The Friendly Fridays volunteers wear bright red hats to identify themselves. Announcements are made in the morning to remind the student body about the program.
Parent Pilar Lopez, the special needs liaison at Rockwell, created a PowerPoint presentation to help the Student Council members understand “the social challenges of kids with communications and social deficits.”
Lopez explained, “I talked to them about their loneliness and about how difficult it is for them to understand the rules of a game and the dynamics of making friends.”
The presentation pointed out some things that aren’t necessarily obvious to busy children at play: “lonely kids wandering aimlessly, scared kids avoiding other kids … nobody talks to them, nobody invites them to play, nobody helps them when they are picked on.”
Language delays, cognitive differences or sensory integration issues can make the playground an intimidating environment for children with autistic spectrum disorders or other disabilities.
And well-meaning, neurotypical classmates may not know the best ways to approach the kids with special needs.
Lopez has coached the Friendly Fridays helpers to “make eye contact, say their names quietly, keep it short and simple — and be patient.”
Since its inception in January, the Friendly Fridays program is slowly but surely changing the playground experience for many students at Rockwell.
Friendly Fridays helper Starr Brown said she hadn’t had much interaction with special- needs students before, but “it’s been fun, playing with kids who are shy, who would just be walking around by themselves at recess, or sitting down — and seeing them participate.”
Friendly Fridays helper Lexi Wolf added, “The most fun is seeing the smiles on their faces. The most challenging part is trying to engage different kids in our group activities.”
Lopez called the Friendly Fridays helpers “an inspiration and real role models for our community.”
She said she’d love to see this type of program at every elementary school in the district and to raise awareness of including special-needs students from early on. Teachers and parent volunteers can reach out to these students, but it is peer acceptance that they truly crave, she said.