Auburn professors are going back to simple childhood lessons, like bike riding, to help children struggling with bigger feats than broken crayons and the last sips of a juice box.
Melissa Pangelinan, assistant kinesiology professor, started “Abilities Unlimited Summer Camp” in July 2016 at Auburn University. The summer camp partners with “iCan Shine,” a bike program who Pangelinan learned about while doing research for her P.h.D. at the University of Maryland.
After becoming a faculty member at Auburn in 2015, Pangelinan decided she would lead the program in Auburn, with a few differences, started the following year.
The summer 2016, they hosted their first camp that was three weeks long and had over 100 children attend. There were four different activities each day focused on. The idea being that it takes time to practice and learn a skill. While the program was great, Pangelinan said “it was pretty overwhelming from the research standpoint.”
This summer the team conducted a single week camp with three sessions a day featuring two activities. Pangelinan said the activities focused on bike skills and nutrition.
Pangelinan said before camp, the children go through several tests that measure their diet, fitness, body fat, body composition and Neurological assessments. This is to compare with tests and assessments done after camp to see growth.
“iCan Shine” is a national program that teaches children how to ride a bike with an 80 percent success rate in five days and over 4,000 children who learn every year.
The program provides specially engineered bicycles for children who learn at a gradual rate.
Pangelinan said they use a series of different rollers that gradually curve in the middle, until it feels almost like a tire, placed where the back tire would be. To start each session, they begin with 75 minutes of riding bicycles.
Each child starts off with a flat roller on their bike, giving the stability of a training wheel and has a metal handle on the back for the volunteers to hold on to, Pangelinan said. Though the materials are useful, the program also strives to simplify words or phrases to be more logical for the children.
The children started off doing laps in the Coliseum with the volunteers running alongside them, trading when they were tired. When the campers are graduated to a normal bike they are taken outside to do laps on the track.
At 2 p.m. in July, temperatures are high making the activity even harder. Despite the heat induced fatique, campers pressed forward. As the volunteers and campers are doing their laps everyone is encouraging each other.
“It is important for our kids to feel like a team and a group that is able to do stuff together with positive reinforcement,” Pangelinan said.
Mother of 12-year-old Gabe, Tami Gonzales said, “We have been trying and trying but nothing has worked until this. It’s a normal thing that all the kids want to do but for special needs kid it is much harder.”
The Gonzales family enjoys going on bike rides together at the beach, and when they go camping, which makes things difficult.
“It’s very hard for families to be active if one of your family members cannot participate,” Pangelinan said.
At the end of that session, Tami Gonzales watched her son complete several laps on a normal bicycle without help from the volunteers, which was a “miracle” to her.
Abilities Unlimited consists of sessions about nutrition where the children learn about balanced meals, whole foods and facts about the unhealthy food they consume each day.
The parents also have an online course with short informational videos to see what their children have learned, with the intent of having the correct food to replace the nutrients used by activity.
“The only way for kids to be healthy is if the parents are healthy,” Pangelinan said. In the fall, is launching a family fitness program to achieve that goal.