Building a healthy future

In adapted physical education classes, Perkins students lift weights, search for treasure and hit home runs while learning skills that will last a lifetime

By Alix Hackett

A student holds a plastic bat with help from his teacher

Lower School teacher Tracey Polimeno helps her Lower School students succeed at T-ball.

As Perkins School for the Blind Lower School teacher Tracey Polimeno will tell you, there’s more than one way to play T-ball.

The students in Polimeno’s adapted physical education class have varying degrees of vision, and some have additional physical or cognitive disabilities that make it difficult for them to grip a bat or remember which way to run around first base. So Polimeno has changed the game to accommodate them.

Students with low vision swing at a brightly colored ball that’s filled with jangling bells to help their peers who are blind locate it in the outfield. A fluorescent orange cone at first base reminds a student in a wheelchair which way to turn after making contact.

When 8-year-old Alexis rounds the bases, he clambers over plastic stepping stones that Polimeno has placed in his path. It’s a tactic Polimeno devised to keep him engaged – and it’s worked.

“He used to last 30 seconds before he would try to leave,” she recalled. “It’s all about finding something he’s interested in, and he loves climbing.”

A student collects objects during a game

Timmy and his classmates in the Deafblind Program gather colorful treasure.

More than just a game

At Perkins, adapted physical education (APE) is part of every student’s schedule, regardless of their level of disability.

The curriculum includes adapted versions of mainstream sports like track and basketball, team-building games and scavenger hunts, and lessons on weightlifting and health. There are units on archery, paddle boating, fencing – even rock climbing.

“We try to expose kids to as many different activities and sports as we can,” said APE Program Coordinator Matt LaCortiglia, who has taught at Perkins for two decades. “We’re always rotating units and changing things up.”

APE classes benefit students in countless ways. A game of tag gives energetic youngsters a chance to blow off steam while learning spatial concepts, and a trip to the local fitness center teaches teenagers how to become healthy adults. Playing a game of floor hockey is fun, but it also encourages students to work on their social interaction and communication skills, two critical components of the Expanded Core Curriculum.

“We provide a dynamic setting for students to help generalize skills that they learn in the classroom,” explained LaCortiglia. “It’s more than just rolling out a ball and playing a game.”

Two students collect objects while their teacher delivers instructions

Students practice using their sense of touch and limited vision to identify colorful treasure.

A treasure trove of skills

Ten minutes before her students in the Deafblind Program arrive, APE teacher Maebh Barry is busy setting up the gymnasium for a game of “Treasure Island.” She pulls plastic rings, colorful beanbags and hockey pucks from the closet and arranges them inside a circle of rope placed on the floor. Students must retrieve pieces of “treasure” while standing outside the rope and then run to deposit them in the bucket assigned to their team. Whoever collects the most items, wins.

It’s the kind of activity you’d expect to find in elementary school gyms across the U.S., but Barry’s students can’t always see the objects they’re collecting or their classmates nearby. Instead, they practice using their sense of touch and limited vision to identify the colorful treasure and obstacles in their path.

“There’s a lot of embedded skills throughout the game,” said Barry. “Some of them might seem simple – like picking up an object – but they also have to be cognizant of each other, listen to directions and follow them.”

For students like Timmy, 16, who are easily distracted, that last lesson is the most difficult. His teaching assistant, Rilla Hammett, chimes in when she sees Timmy beginning to lose focus.

“Which one are you going to pick up?” she signs, gently guiding him toward the objects at the center of the room. Timmy carefully selects a yellow plastic ring. “Awesome choice,” Hammett says, giving him two thumbs up.

One pool that fits all

Many APE classes take place outside the gym, whether they’re on Perkins’ accessible track (guidewires help students who are blind stay in their lanes) or at the local fencing academy. Some of the most popular ones are held in the Perkins pool, where students who normally use wheelchairs have a chance to stretch their limbs and strengthen little-used muscles.

“A lot of really special moments happen in the pool,” said APE teacher Mary Clark.

“Students who have very little movement in the chair can get into this 90 degree water and do a swim stroke – feel their bodies in a way they can’t feel in any other medium.”

Secondary Program student William, 19, uses a wheelchair to travel between classes. In the pool, however, he practices kicking his legs while wearing a flotation belt and holding onto Clark’s shoulders for support. His vocal cords get a workout, too. In between exercises, William tests the acoustics by performing Celine Dion’s “My heart will go on.”

“That was so fun,” he says afterwards. “I was singing and jumping at the same time.”

In addition to therapeutic classes like William’s, the modest-sized pool is where students learn different strokes and try out for the swim team. For those coming from public school, Perkins is often their first exposure to the sport.

“A lot of kids who are blind don’t get a chance to go swimming,” said APE teacher Meghan O’Connell-Copp. “Here, we have kids doing sensory swimming, functional swimming and competitive swimming, all in our little pool.”

Feeling the burn

During a unit on community recreation, Secondary Program students Jamie and Jonah travel to a local YMCA, where they practice working out in the second-floor fitness center. It’s not an easy task for someone who is blind – students must memorize the location and configuration of each machine and learn the proper etiquette for wiping down equipment and interacting with other members.

For his first set, Jamie heads to the chest press, where he knocks out 30 reps before moving on to leg extensions. Seated at the machine, he stores his collapsible white cane in the water bottle holder, and adjusts the metal weight pin by feel. He does 10 reps, brow furrowed in concentration.

“I can feel the burn,” he tells O’Connell-Copp when he’s finished. 

A student fires an arrow during an archery unit

Secondary Program student Paige fires an arrow during an archery lesson.

At Perkins, preparation for the future is paramount no matter what class a student is in, and APE is no exception. The goal of community fitness is for students to be able to use gym equipment safely and effectively after they graduate. That includes knowing how to ask for help, whether it’s adjusting a seat back or figuring out where to place a backpack so it doesn’t trip people walking by.

The YMCA workouts have helped Jamie gain confidence in his skills. At the beginning of the semester, he was nervous about using the equipment incorrectly and getting hurt.

But now, “I’m more familiar with the parts of the machines and what they do,” he said. “I’m not as anxious – I know nothing will happen until I want it to.”

An environment for success

When most people think about adapted physical education, they think of equipment modifications: a vertical bar attached to a hockey stick so a student with motor challenges can grasp it, or a baseball that beeps so someone who is blind can hear it.

"If we can create good habits and interests that students like, they can continue to be active when they leave here." –Matt LaCortiglia

But the adaptations at Perkins go a lot further than that, said LaCortiglia.

“It’s not always bringing in a device or making something,” he said. “A lot of times it can be your instructional methods, the order of doing things, even where students are located in the room.”

In Polimeno’s class, music plays a starring role. When tempers start to flare or a student is losing interest, she’ll blast Adele on the loudspeaker. During treadmill workouts, students listen to their own personalized playlists for motivation.

Polimeno’s classes also follow a consistent pattern: a warm-up, then the day’s activity, followed by 10 minutes of free time when students can choose any activity they like. The format works for Polimeno’s Lower School students, many of whom have cognitive disabilities and crave routine.

No matter what the modification is, its overall purpose is the same: to create an environment where all students can experience success.

“Whatever the child is able to do, we build around that,” said LaCortiglia. “If we can create good habits and interests that students like, they can continue to be active when they leave here. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Success takes flight

During a Friday morning game of T-ball, Polimeno hands James, 14, a red plastic bat. “Use those muscles,” she says.

James grasps the bat’s handle, and swings for the fences.

“Fly James, fly!” come the yells from the sidelines as the ball sails into the outfield. His classmates cheer as James rounds the bases, a smile spreading across his face. It’s his first home run of the day – and even if he doesn’t know it yet, a run towards a healthy, happy future.