Inclusive Learning May Be Easiest in Out of School Settings

What does it take to create an inclusive learning environment?  Probably the toughest place to make inclusion happen is in school -- for a variety of reasons.

To start with, once students are past early elementary grades, the opportunity for multisensory, hands-on learning appears to disappear.  Instead, students are asked to become almost entirely verbal learners who are able to describe and interpret their understanding through the use of spoken or written words.  While many people are verbal learners, a great many are not.  This reality is, in part, simply a tradition -- but it is also an artifact of the so-called "no child left behind" approach to education which is intended only for verbal learners.  Our special needs students are often "special" because they learn best in ways that involve fewer words and more options.

Another issue in the public schools is the requirement that kids sit still and attend, focus, organize and respond for extended periods of time.  Again, this is natural for some people, but not for many others. Our "special" kids are more likely to be the ones who need to move, touch and interact in order to make sense of the world.

Once outside the school setting, many "special needs" kids suddenly seem much less "special."  Whether in sports, music, drama, chess club, Boy or Girl Scouts, in the pool or on a nature trail, these kids are often stars.  They're the ones with excess energy, extraordinary focus, great observation skills, huge emotions, or great artistic talent.  While none of these qualities translate well into the typical school setting, they may be a tremendous asset outside that very particular situation.

In addition to all these positives, non-school organizations have the option of flexing and changing their programs and offerings on a dime, without the need to change an IEP, meet state guidelines, or otherwise cope with red tape.  If one approach doesn't work, it's easy enough to try another.

Perhaps most significantly, though, out-of-school settings are specifically designed to be interactive, multisensory and exploration-based.  From summer camps to riding stables to community theaters and bands to after-school clubs, it's all about doing and experiencing, not about talking and writing.

In recent months, I have seen a large growth of interest among non-school organizations (museums, nature centers, after school programs, YMCAs) in reaching and working with kids with special needs.  There are many reasons for this; some are mission driven; others are financially focused; still others are intrigued by the possibilities.  In just a few months, I've received several invitations to take part in conferences, events, and even Masters theses -- all focused on opportunities for kids with special needs in out-of-school settings.

Are you a part of a non-school organization that makes inclusion learning a priority?  Please share your program information here!

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Lisa Jo Rudy