Wii solutions for special needs

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Young Justin Borquez reacted with unbridled enthusiasm even though he just struck out in a game of virtual baseball.

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There may be virtual baseball on the TV behind them, but instructional aide Cedric Hamilton and teacher Taleiah Larkin have their students, Julian Vargas and Matthew Huddleston, ready to try any sport.

Matthew Huddleston winds up and throws a blistering fastball towards home plate. Justin Borquez takes a mighty swing but misses, and a big smile comes across his face. Not the normal reaction you would expect from a competitor involved in a baseball game. But the game in question was not a real baseball game and Huddleston and Borquez are not athletes. The two are severely disabled students enrolled in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ (KCSOS) special needs program at the Harry E. Blair Learning Center in Bakersfield. And they were taking part in a virtual baseball game, despite their physical handicaps, thanks to an innovative idea by teacher Taleiah Larkin.

Larkin has brought technology, hope, excitement and a new way of learning and exercising to students who have a difficult time doing both. On Dec. 11, Larkin was presented with a $1,000 "One Teacher at a Time Grant" by KBAK TV news anchor Siemny Chhuon. Larkin used the grant to purchase a Nintendo Wii and software for "Project Virtual PE." The concept is providing about 45 students with severe disabilities in six classrooms at Blair the ability to participate in physical education activities.

"During a period of time this past summer it was too hot to take the children outside to play. I had a Wii of my own at home and thought ‘I wonder if the technology might help our students get the needed exercise,’" Larkin said. "So, I brought it in and one of our former students, who is a special needs athlete, tried it out. She loved it, and I could see from her enthusiasm that Wii could have a valuable place in our classroom."

She talked the idea over with the other teachers at Blair and supervisors in the KCSOS Special Education Services division. They wholeheartedly endorsed her desire to apply for the grant, even offering ideas and support in writing the document. Larkin sent the application off to KBAK TV. The station thought it was a great concept and answered the children’s needs by funding the project. Larkin got another helping hand from Best Buy which gave her "a great deal" on the Wii hardware and a healthy supply of sports software.

Now with the help of instructional aides and other teachers who help them use their arms and legs to play, the children are involved in fitness, dance, soccer, skiing, baseball, golf, tennis, boxing and more. Both student and teacher or aide hold the Wii remote control together and watch the activity unfold on a TV monitor. When it comes time to pitch, they pitch together. Same holds true for the hitting or whatever other game in which they might be involved.

It has only been a short period of time since Larkin purchased the indoor technology marvel and already the Blair staff is witnessing remarkable advancements that transcend the physical activity. For example, when student Michael Zazueta steps to the plate, he stares intently at the activity on the screen taking in all the details. When Melina Leavey launches a homerun with her Wii remote bat, you can tell by the smile on her face that she knows what has been accomplished is extraordinary. Both students have attained goals many would not have expected from them.

"One day a mom came in to visit and was shocked to see her child could play these involved games," Larkin said. "She already had a Wii at home and could not wait for school to let out so she could share the new experience of playing the games with her child."

Physically, the students can work on balance with the dance programs. As previously mentioned, the games require them to concentrate for extended periods of time, to recognize colors, shapes and numbers. Each time they pitch, bat, swing, roll, kick or punch, they are increasing much needed circulation in their limbs.

As with anything new that is producing results in the field of special needs, other teachers, other schools and districts have heard about Larkin’s Wii sports center at Blair. She is getting requests for field trips and "game days" to see how it can work in other classrooms.

"What makes it work is that the whole staff at Blair has totally bought into this," Larkin said. "We are a team, and the smiles you see are not just those of the children. When a homerun is hit or strikeout thrown, there are two sets of smiles on display. One belongs to the student and the other to the teacher/aide playing partner."


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