Children with disabilities learn through sport during COVID-19

During school closures, regular exercise is more important than ever

Andrew Brown and Sammy Nyaberi
Buxton Gitimu
21 July 2020

Buxton Gitimu, 11, lives with his family in Huruma informal settlement, Nairobi. One of his favourite things to do is playing football with his brother Joseph. The boys are very close. Together, they race around a football field at Salama Primary School with their coach, practicing tackles and other moves. Afterwards, they do keepy uppies, counting to see how long they can keep the ball in the air. The football field is normally full of children, but today it is empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the boys are playing football, there is little to distinguish them. But afterwards, when Buxton speaks, it is clear that he has to make an extra effort to express himself. Buxton was born with an intellectual disability, making it challenging for him to learn. But with the support of his family and coach, he is making great progress.

Although Buxton struggles in the classroom, he is good at sport. He enjoys jogging, exercising, playing football and handball. In 2019, he represented his school and Nairobi city in the National Special Olympics for children with special needs.

“I like to play ball with my brothers and ride my bike,” Buxton says. “When I grow up, I want to become a driver because I like to travel to different places. Exercising is good. It gives you strength and life, so you can go far.”

Buxton Gitimu and his brother Joseph
Buxton Gitimu and his brother Joseph exercise with Special Olympics Kenya coach George Muriuki at Salama Primary School.
Buxton tackles his brother
Buxton tackles his brother Joseph. The school is closed due to COVID-19 but they allow Special Olympics coaches to use the football field.
Buxton counts to see how many keepy uppies
Buxton counts to see how many keepy uppies he can do without dropping the ball.

Because children are spending more time at home during the school closures, often in cramped conditions, regular exercise is more important than ever.

Special Olympics Kenya, supported by UNICEF, provides their athletes with exercises while at home. Their ‘Fit Five’ programme helps to engage children in physical exercise. The organisation sends an exercise schedule to coaches through their mobile phones, who then relay this to the parents. It is designed around exercises that can easily be done at home, including in small spaces, and can be done by the whole family.

“Buxton is academically challenged so I also concentrate on his better side, which is sport activities,” Coach George Muriuki says. “Children with special needs, especially those with intellectual disabilities, tend to overeat. So during this time they are at home because of COVID-19, it is important that parents involve them in exercises to make sure that they remain healthy and strong.”

Buxton’s parents say the Special Olympics programme has made a huge difference to his life. “Buxton was born in 2009. He was different from the other children,” his mother Anne Muthoni says says. “I started to notice he would sit a lot and had problems walking and talking. When it was time for him to go to school, Buxton had difficulties in class. He was not understanding anything being taught.”

Buxton’s father Simon Kabiru organises his indoor exercises and encourages the whole family join in. He moves one of the chairs and puts it on top of the sofa, leaving just enough space in the family’s small front room to bounce a ball. On the floor, there is a brown carpet decorated with a flower design that they use as an exercise mat. “At home, we do light exercises,” Simon explains. “Since the house is small, we do what we can. These exercises have changed Buxton a lot. He has a lot more energy now.”

Buxton and his family
Buxton, second from right, lives with his family in Huruma, Nairobi. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is not able to play outdoors with his friends and train.
Buxton exercises at home
Buxton exercises at home with his siblings. Special Olympics Kenya, supported by UNICEF, provides their athletes with exercises while at home.
Buxton exercises at home with his siblings.
Buxton exercises at home with his siblings. His father Simon organizes the exercises and has the whole family join in.

UNICEF has been working with Special Olympics since 2019 to support children like Buxton living in informal settlements with sports education and physical activity. So far, 216 children with intellectual disabilities have been reached through the programme. The aim is to reach 500 children by the end of 2020.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya has forced a change to the way this support is delivered. The competitive events have been suspended but coaching continues through exercise at home, remote support and occasional one-on-one coaching sessions. Special Olympics has developed an eight-week fitness programme with various exercises guided by coaches.           

“Just like any other children, children with disabilities need physical fitness for them to thrive in this difficult time,” UNICEF Education Specialist Rolando says. “At UNICEF Kenya, we use sport as a powerful tool to promote the enrolment and retention of children in schools. Through this programme, we are able to support children with intellectual disabilities to learn from home, while at the same time pursuing their physical fitness.”

For children like Buxton, this means they can stay fit, healthy and motivated, until such time as they are able to return to school in safety.

Buxton holds a ball
Buxton represented Salama Primary School and Nairobi in the National Special Olympics for children under 14 years old with special needs

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By Andrew Brown, UNICEF Kenya, and Sammy Nyaberi