Young Athletes aims to teach children about inclusivity

Published 8:37 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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The sounds of squeals, laughs and the occasional smack could be heard Tuesday night as young children had the chance to come together.

That’s thanks to Dani Bakken, Audra Beussman and Annie Olson, who brought back the Young Athletes program to Albert Lea.

“Young Athletes is a program that has been around for many, many, many years and it’s part of Special Olympics of Southern Minnesota,” said Audra Beussman, an early childhood special education teacher in the Albert Lea school district. “What they’re always trying to do is increase the amount of children that can participate in sports.”

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Young Athletes is the first step in a longer goal. After this program, there’s Unified Sports, before progressing to Unified Juniors and finally Unified Sports.

Besides being engaged in sports, Beussman said the goal of the program was to have children engaged in sports with peers who may have disabilities.

“We don’t want a program that’s just for children with disabilities to be by themselves,” she said. “We want them to learn from their friends, we want them to learn the social skills and the motor skills from their peers. And we also want their peers who don’t have special needs to learn about others and to want others to participate with others.”

Young Athletes is a multi-week program focusing on a different step in developing motor and social skills. One week might focus on foundational skills, while another on throwing skills. At the same time, the program incorporates games and breaks everything down into a step-by-step process.

Beussman said she and Annie Olson, a teacher at United Preschool, used to do Young Athletes as a partnership with United Preschool and Albert Lea Area Schools.

“We’re no longer doing that, so Annie and I really wanted to continue this program because it’s such a great program,” Beussman said. “Annie and I had such a desire and a passion to keep this program going because we loved it so much. We saw the gains of our past students.”

She then recalled the story of a past participant, a boy who struggled to move small distances. But by the end of the program, he was moving around and the two of them could see a physical change in his body.

She talked about a boy who was in a walker/wheelchair where students learned how to balance with other kids in order to kick a ball.

“Without a peer doing that you couldn’t balance to kick the ball,” she said. “… The kids just realized, ‘Hey, this student needs help.’ And he would lean down and help.”

This will be the first time Young Athletes has not partnered with the school district.

“The great thing about Young Athletes is it’s designed for both,” Beussman said. “What you read in the books you could break it down into 15-minute chunks and doing the unit of throwing over the course of a full week or 1 1/2. Or you could have one big hour-long plus time of really focusing on that.”

Bakken — whose background is in therapeutic recreation — is recreation coordinator for the city of Albert Lea and also helped to organize the Young Athletes event at United Preschool, and after learning Olson used to do this program, she knew she wanted to be part of it.

The program will run from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. every Tuesday night in the basement at United Methodist Church for the next five weeks, which is at 702 U.S. Highway 69 S. Registration for this session has closed, but Bakken said there could be one available in the spring, or they may wait until the fall for the next.

“I am just super excited to work with them and collaborate and get our preschoolers and toddlers back active and get them in an inclusive program area because I think sometimes that word, inclusivity, can be scary to parents,” Bakken said. “I think it’s good to … normalize it.”

The program is for children with or without any type of disability between 3- and 6-years-old, although the next session of Young Athletes hasn’t been finalized yet.