Innovative Soccajoeys Next Step program caters to children with additional needs to help them reap the benefits of sports in their development
September 14th, 2016: Childhood development experts have long said that participation in sport can have a huge impact on a child’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive well-being1 – but too often, children living with disabilities are faced with a lack of appropriate sporting options. Enter the Soccajoeys Foundation, which tailors its Next Step program to provide a well-rounded, holistic approach in delivering the five “F’s” of team sport – Fun, Fitness, Function, Friends, and Future – to Aussie children with additional needs.
“Regardless of their ability, every child should have the opportunity to participate in team sport,” says Soccajoeys Foundation’s founder and former professional soccer player, Jose Bello. Bello formed the Next Step program to allow children diagnosed with additional needs, such as Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Global Development Delay, and other less common diagnoses, to use soccer as a way to make incredible improvements in their social, physical, cognitive and emotional development.
“When it comes to making positive changes in kids with additional needs, the key lies in the five F’s of team sport,” advises Bello. “Rather than trying to ‘fix’ each child to perform in the exact same way, the Next Step program uses the areas of function, fitness, fun, friends and future, to help make a positive impact on kids’ development,” Bello says.
Here, Bello highlights how the Next Step program provides the perfect platform for these children to grow and shine:
- Function: “One of the biggest struggles that children with additional needs face is a focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can do,” explains Bello. “Our skills classes provide simple ‘function’ exercises in a supportive environment where there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ – we focus less on the exact steps required to complete a task, and more on a child’s unique ability to complete a task in their own way.” As a result, kids in the program have shown significant improvement in their receptive language abilities, motor planning, speech and language skills, and their ability to understand new concepts.
- Fitness: Many experts agree that building fitness plays an integral role in the general development of all children, including those with additional needs. “Again, by focusing on the destination and end goal rather than the journey, the Next Step program creates an environment of support and attention that allows these kids to build their endurance, strength, and confidence at their own level and their own pace,” says Bello, who runs his classes with input from other child development specialists such as paediatric occupational therapists and speech pathologists. “We don’t operate on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to fitness and activity and because of that, we’ve seen incredible results,” he adds.
- Fun: When faced with countless doctor visits and physical therapy appointments, it’s easy for kids and parents alike to forget that having fun is such an important part of childhood. “The Next Step program is an awesome way to provide an alternative yet effective form of therapy that lets kids be kids and have fun at the same time,” explains Bello. “It’s really important that these children have a platform to enjoy themselves and be in an environment that removes expectations of what is ‘normal.’ For me as a coach, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the kids playing and celebrating achievements with big smiles on their faces,” he says.
- Friends: Social interactions can have a huge impact on a child’s development and the Next Step program works to encourage, empower and enhance all opportunities for kids to develop peer connections. “This is one of my favourite things about the Next Step program, and one that touches both kids and parents alike,” says Bello. “The judgement-free zone creates a positive environment for everyone involved to form new friendships, connect with one another, and have a sense of belonging in a community.”
- Future: For children with additional needs, it’s important they remain positive and never feel like a task or a goal is impossible or out of reach. According to Bello, the Next Step program has already provided an uplifting starting point to develop this kind of positive and forward-thinking environment for these kids. “Of the 200 children that have participated in the Soccajoeys Next Step program, 32 percent later joined mainstream Soccajoeys programs, and 15 children have gone on to join mainstream local soccer clubs,” explains Bello. “Next Step is the perfect stepping stone to remind each child of everything they’re capable of and how much they can accomplish.”
The Soccajoeys Next Step program runs classes in NSW in Bulli, Turramurra, Epping, Bondi Junction, and Baulkham Hills. For more information on the Foundation’s work, to enlist your child or to donate to the program, visit soccajoeysfoundation.com.