Gabriel, a KEEN athlete, having fun at one of the KEEN sessions (photo credit: KEEN USA)

By Kristina Kopic

The current trend in lamenting the “good old days” seems to always include the complaint that children aren’t playing as much as they used to, especially not in the outdoorsy, physical way. While it’s tempting to dismiss statements like these, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that childhood obesity has doubled in the last 30 years, and among adolescents it has quadrupled, putting more children at risk of cardiovascular disease among others. But if we look more closely, this growth in midsection is not affecting all children equally. Children with disabilities are “38% more likely to be obese than their counterparts” according to AbilityPath.org. These are precisely the children that due to the lack of adaptive equipment on playgrounds, and due to a competition-based model of group play all too frequently don’t get to play outside at all.

 

This is of course a problem, but before I go on, I have to make one thing clear: just because someone looks obese or overweight doesn’t mean they are unhealthy. We too often conflate appearance with health and happiness and the last thing I want is for this blog to be used as fodder for fat-shaming children and parents. There are obese people who are at no risk of increased cardio-vascular problems or increased all-cause mortality. This is known as metabolically healthy obesity and is a good reminder to not pretend to know someone’s health profile if you’re not their doctor.

Gabriel, a KEEN athlete, having fun at one of the KEEN sessions (photo credit: KEEN USA) With that said, exercise carries with it significant benefits that extend beyond physical health such as increased self-esteem, skill improvement, and simply fun. Yet so many children with disabilities do not have the opportunity to exercise—something that able-bodied children frequently take for granted. KEEN USA is addressing this inequality.

KEEN stands for “Kids Enjoy Exercise Now” and is a truly extraordinary and completely free program that pairs trained community-volunteers with children and adolescents who have developmental and physical disabilities. Children as young as 4-5 and young adults up to 21 years old meet for one-on-one exercise sessions that are tailored to the child’s ability level. “We are filling a gap so we can serve the hardest to reach populations. We turn no one away,” said Joanna Winsborough, the National Development Director when I spoke with her. “We are very able to get volunteers and we always have the 1-1 ratio. But we’ve had 2-1 ratios for people who needed it. … In our LA affiliate we had an athlete who had never been down a slide. Because we were able to pair her with three volunteers, she was able to go down the slide.” This non-competitive model ensures full participation of everyone and doesn’t require an understanding for the rules of any sport. And you can take a look at what this model looks like in this video.

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