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Sports Help Children With Disabilities Learn and Cope With COVID-19

July 21, 2020

During the COVID-19 school closures, regular exercise is more important than ever for all children, including those with disabilities. 

Buxton, 11, lives with his family in Huruma, an informal settlement northeast of Nairobi, Kenya. One of his favorite things to do is play soccer with his brother, Joseph. The boys are very close. Together, they race around the field at Salama Primary School with their coach, practicing their moves. Afterward, they do "keepy uppies," counting to see how long they can keep the ball in the air. The field is ordinarily full of children, but today it is empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the boys are playing, there is little to distinguish them. But afterward, when Buxton speaks, it is clear that he requires extra effort to express himself. Buxton was born with an intellectual disability, making it challenging for him to learn. With the support of his family and coach, though, he is making significant progress.

Although Buxton struggles in the classroom, he is good at sports. He enjoys jogging, exercising, soccer and handball. In 2019, he represented his school and Nairobi city in the National Special Olympics for children with special needs.

During COVID-19 school closures, regular exercise for kids with disabilities is more important than ever

Buxton, right, and his brother, Joseph, exercise with Special Olympics Kenya coach George Muriuki at the Salama Primary School in Haruma, northeast of Nairobi in Kenya. 

“I like to play ball with my brothers and ride my bike,” Buxton says. “When I grow up, I want to become a driver because I like to travel to different places. Exercising is good. It gives you strength and life, so you can go far.”

Because children are spending more time at home during the school closures, often in cramped quarters, regular exercise is more important than ever.

Special Olympics Kenya, supported by UNICEF, provides athletes with exercises through the Fit Five program. The organization sends an exercise schedule to coaches' mobile phones, which they then relay to parents. Designed to be done easily at home, even in small spaces, the exercises are ones the whole family can enjoy.

“Buxton is academically challenged, so I also concentrate on his better side, which is sports,” Muriuki says. “Children with special needs, especially those with intellectual disabilities, tend to overeat. So during this time they are at home because of COVID-19, it is important that parents involve them in exercises to make sure that they remain healthy and strong.”

Special Olympics Kenya provides families with an exercise regimen easily done at home 

Buxton, right, plays offense with his brother, Joseph. Although the boys' school is closed due to COVID-19, the football field is open to Special Olympics coaches and their athletes. 

Buxton’s parents say the Special Olympics program has made a huge difference in his life. “Buxton was born in 2009. He was different from the other children,” his mother Anne Muthoni says. “I started to notice he would sit a lot and had problems walking and talking. When it was time for him to go to school, Buxton had difficulties in class. He was not understanding anything being taught.”

Buxton’s father Simon Kabiru leads Buxton's exercises in the living room and encourages the whole family to join in. With other furniture put on top of the sofa, there's just enough space in the family’s small living room to bounce a ball. The room's brown carpet works well as an exercise mat.

“At home, we do light exercises,” Kabiru explains. “Since the house is small, we do what we can. These exercises have changed Buxton a lot. He has a lot more energy now.”

UNICEF has been working with Special Olympics since 2019 to support children in Nairobi's informal settlements  

Buxton, second from right, and his family take a break in the living room of their home in Huruma, Nairobi. When it's time to exercise, the other furniture in the room goes on the couch, leaving just enough floor space to bounce a ball. “Since the house is small, we do what we can," says Buxton’s father, Simon Kabiru. "These exercises have changed Buxton a lot. He has a lot more energy now." 

UNICEF has been working with Special Olympics since 2019 to support children who live Nairobi's informal settlements with sports education and physical activity. Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya, this support has adapted to ensure children with disabilities still get the help they need.            

“Just like any other children, children with disabilities need physical fitness to thrive in this difficult time,” UNICEF Education Specialist Rolando says. “At UNICEF Kenya, we use sports as a powerful tool to promote the enrollment and retention of children in schools. Through this program, we can support children with intellectual disabilities to learn from home while at the same time pursuing their physical fitness.”

For children like Buxton, this means they can stay fit, healthy and motivated until they can return to school in safety.

Top photo: Buxton, left, and his brother, Joseph, love to exercise and play all kinds of sports together, including soccer with Buxton's Special Olympics-Kenya coach, George Muriuki. All photos: © UNICEFKenya/2020/Nyaberi