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Last week China celebrated teachers during their 28th Annual Teacher’s Day and The Party Chief of Shanghai Mr. Yu Zhengsheng spent the day with students with intellectual disabilities – enjoying themselves as they combined play and learning. Looking at the pictures below there is unmistakable joy and hope in the faces of the students as they engage with their teachers and one another in play.

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At Special Olympics our research has demonstrated a strong connection between motor development and cognitive development in young children. In a recent evaluation, we studied how structured play through our Young Athletes program improves the motor development skills that research shows are critical to cognitive development. Think about that – demonstrable motor development through play that can lead to increased cognitive development.

A 2010 study released by Gallup showed that only half of American students in grades 5-12 felt hopeful about their future and the study further concluded that the feeling of hope can be directly tied to a student’s participation and achievement in an academic setting.

According to Gallup’s study and Education Week’s report on this work, students are more likely to say that they are “not known, not valued, not recognized” at the secondary level, in the same way they were in elementary school.

They also indicate that their school days are stripped of “play” in middle school.

We need to find ways to make students more hopeful, to engage them and to foster opportunities to find joy in their lives – through play.

Special Olympics is here to help. Our youth engagement initiatives provide opportunities for young people to play sports, to feel engaged and respected and most importantly feel valued and recognized.

Special Olympics Project Unify is currently in 2,400 schools in the US and growing around the world built on the premise that to have the greatest impact, change must start with young people. For years, Special Olympics has recognized the role that youth play in achieving the long-term societal goals of acceptance and inclusion. Special Olympics views youth as powerful and effective advocates predisposed to be open-minded to new things and having the courage of conviction to step up and defend their beliefs.

For this reason, Special Olympics finds that young people are some of the most powerful and effective advocates on behalf of acceptance. Project Unify combines Special Olympics core sports initiatives with a number of complementary education and youth leadership and advocacy initiatives, which together provide programming that promotes the inclusion of children and youth with special needs in school and society.

The impact of this work is now being felt globally. In addition to the strong presence in the U.S. we are now piloting this work in five countries – Serbia, Romania, Italy, Austria and India – engaging 5,280 youth and teachers in 340 schools and communities. In a majority of these settings Project Unify connects special and mainstream education students for the first time.

Ivan Cirkovic, a student from the Special School “Vukasin Markovic” in Kragujevac/Serbia shared his experience with our team, “I like Project Unify, now I will have more friends, and I know they will help me to change my community. It is very empowering to hear and see how many changes we can make. I can’t wait for more events and opportunities for us to interact together!”

The research shows that play is a vital part of happiness and health. Students tell us that having play integrated into their educational communities contributes to their happiness, helps them to feel engaged and connected. Our own eyes tell us that a hopeful, smiling student raises their hand more in class, completes their assignments with vigor and goes into the world confident and empowered to make an impact.

In the States and around the world, it is critical that we work to infuse the element of play into the lives of our children in every school and community because when we play unified, we learn to live unified and that is a reason for each of us to feel hope.

-T

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