Special Olympics Encourages Athletic Involvement for Kids of All Abilities
For the Tolliver family, finding an activity that their daughters could be involved in together was a challenge.
So when 9-year-old Payton and 7-year-old Presley, who has Down syndrome, got involved in the Young Athletes program through Special Olympics Arkansas, they knew it was the perfect solution.
For the last several years, homeschooling mom Robin has used the Young Athletes curriculum to help her daughters stay active and learn skills that they can use to participate in competitive sports.
“It really gives them a systematic advancement, where they start with foundation and learn balance, fast walking and then running,” Robin said. “It really stairsteps their progression and kind of gives parents some guidance and a baseline.”
The program, designed for kids up to 8 years old, is inclusive, meaning that kids with and without disabilities can benefit from the eight-week, repeatable curriculum. It’s offered in schools, through community programs and any parent can download it as well.
“A lot of kids that receive a diagnosis or have some developmental issues, the families might feel a little defeated because of everything that they have gone through,” said Jennifer Grantham, director of field services, initiatives and volunteers for Special Olympics Arkansas. “They’re never going to be able to be a typical kid. (Young Athletes) is giving parents an opportunity to see success and progress in their children.”
While Young Athletes isn’t competitive, it does provide opportunities for participants — both those with special needs and without — to attend traditional Special Olympics competitions and participate in events in conjunction with those.
Robin says that Payton and Presley enjoy running together and simply being able to participate in a joint activity. An annual event in Searcy is one of the opportunities for Young Athletes participants to show off their athletic skills. They can try a long jump, tennis ball throw, and a run, and awards are given for participation.
“The more they try, the more they exert themselves physically, the more they’re celebrated,” Robin said. “Payton holds Presley’s hand when they run and it’s just the sweetest thing. It’s not about her beating everyone else it’s about them doing it together and finishing.”
The Tolliver family has been using the Young Athletes curriculum for about four years now, and according to Grantham, even though it’s only an eight-week curriculum, it’s designed to be built on and repeated as kids grow in their skills.
“If you do it once, the way you implement it the first time, each skill set and activity you’re working on adapts to the level they’re at,” Grantham said. “If you start over and do it again, you raise that activity level expectation … You’re constantly learning and growing and pushing that athlete to be better.”
And as for the Tolliver family, they’re looking forward to next year, when Presley turns 8 and will move on to traditional Special Olympics. There’s no age cut-off for the traditional program, and Presley could choose to continue the athletic events through her entire adulthood.
“I love that it’s something that she can always do if she wants to,” Robin said. “And I love that the winners aren’t celebrated so much as the finishers are celebrated.”
For intellectually disabled kids and their normally abled siblings.
Events: Non-competitive events expose kids to the environment of spectators watching as well as various sensory and noise changes.
Curriculum: An eight-week curriculum begins with sports fundamentals and teaches kids everything from running to jumping to catching a ball. Teachers and parents can repeat the curriculum and adjust it to the students’ skill levels.
Credibility: The curriculum was written and created by Special Olympics, Mattel Corporation and physical therapists and has a large sense of therapy background in all of the lessons. It’s designed so that any parent can pick it up and work through it with their child.
For more information: Call Jennifer Grantham at 501-771-0222 or visit the Young Athletes page at SpecialOlympicsArkansas.org.
Traditional Special Olympics
Designed exclusively for participants with intellectual disabilities.
Ages: 8 and up.
Events: Competitive events encourage athletes to push themselves, but completion is still celebrated as much as victories.
Activities: Athletes can choose from 21 activities and sports including bowling, cheerleading, cycling, soccer, swimming and more. Athletics, which includes 18 track events and six field events, is Special Olympics' biggest event, with an annual Summer Games where 2,000 athletes compete.
Benefits: Special Olympics participants develop improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence and a more positive self-image.
For more information: Call the Special Olympics Arkansas home office at 501-771-0222 or visit