07/10/2012 05:16 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Physical Education and Technology: Using Video Sports Games to Engage Students with Disabilities

According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths. Much of this is due to physical inactivity that leads to obesity, which in turn can lead to disease and death. More than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) and 17% of U.S. children are obese. Between 1980-2008, obesity rates doubled for adults and tripled for children.

Most "non-challenged" children and adults have opportunities to avail themselves of physical activity -- they just fail to do it. Not so for students with special needs.

For special needs students, opportunities for participating in physical activity lessen as they get older. This is related to the highly structured nature of competitive sports as well as the complex motor and social skills needed to navigate team sports.

So how do we find ways to engage special needs students in physical activity when the very nature of that activity works against them as they get older?

While the use of dance, aquatics and even yoga are becoming more prevalent at special needs schools, some forward-thinking institutions are also looking at off-the-shelf technology applications.

One especially interesting example of this is at the Aaron School, a private special needs facility in New York City, where the physical arts faculty are incorporating video sports games into their curriculum. While Aaron uses Kinect Sports, any video game sports module -- such as Nintendo Wii Sports or Playstation 3 Sports -- could be used in similar fashion. All of these video gaming technologies have motion detection peripherals that allow students to virtually "play" games such as bowling, boxing, soccer, etc. with others, and participate in activities in an engaging, familiar format.

For students who resist physical activity but enjoy digital technology, this type of approach is especially helpful because they now have opportunities to develop skills and applications with something they know, enjoy and are comfortable with. But key to using this type of technology is selecting modules based on the following criteria:

1. Ability to teach skills related to preparation and anticipated movement (motor planning), visual scanning (surveying the playing area), tracking and crossing mid-line (knowing when to transfer response from one side of the body to the other);

2. Ability to use both upper and lower body muscle groups;

3. Ability to teach both individual and team sports and,

4. Ability to transfer skills to lifetime recreational pursuits.

A video sports game curriculum should begin with individual sports, adding team sports as skills develop. Following is an ideal sequence:

Bowling: It allows for easy access and engagement, and it's also likely that most special needs students know this game and have either played or attended bowling events. While 'playing' this game, students are required to reach to their left or right to select a ball, swing their arm forward to bowl and exaggerate the arm movement to add spin. Teacher instruction in scoring is an added component, and there is also a timed option for this game which improves motor fluency.

Table Tennis: Skills involved in this game include right/left orientation, crossing midline and using hand-eye coordination. Students also learn how to incorporate topspin, backspin and smash shots and to understand the scoring mechanism. The advanced speed and dexterity options offered in the Paddle Panic and Rally Tally games also offer opportunities for students to develop more complex motor planning skills.

Soccer: Here students are required to play as either an attacker or defender. As an attacker, the student must kick the ball to pass or shoot. In addition to the motor patterns needed to execute the action, this requires spatial awareness and use of strategy. As a defender, the player is encouraged to move from side to side to block passes and use their full body to block shots. Being able to change speed and change direction are important skills for playing soccer and they are taught using this format in a controlled, systematic fashion.

Does it work? In a recently published article, Dan Stachelski of the Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah, Washington, noted that researchers have found multiple cases where students with developmental disabilities easily interact with an onscreen character that mimics their motions because the game world is more predictable and less threatening (to them) than "the real world." And the Aaron School program found that students' success in video sports games also translated into success in other areas. In one case, a 7th grade student who had a tremendous fear of competition went through the video game curriculum as described. That student not only went on to compete in the school wide ping pong competition -- he won. Thanks to the surge of confidence he gained, the student also started to try new challenges in other areas, academic and non-academic.

Students can benefit from a video sports game curriculum via increased body fitness, improved self-esteem, improved ability to manage stress, healthy body composition, flexibility, strength and endurance, as well as developing the social skills necessary to participate in team sports. By using a video sports curriculum, students also set the stage for life-long physical improvements because this activity helps reduce barriers to access, whether those barriers are physical, emotional or psychological.

The common image of adolescents playing video games is that they sit like "zombies" in front of a screen. But with the video sports model, anecdotal research indicates positive results have been achieved by virtually all special needs students. They improve skill development, which leads to increased self confidence -- which leads to more risk taking and exploration -- which leads to more learning.

Learning new skills and being part of a team are important experiences for all children, but are often intimidating to students with special needs. The video sports curriculum successfully combines the digital world with the sports world in a systematic, instructional model that achieves these goals while generating measurable results for special needs students. It's a model that is definitely scalable and worth exploring elsewhere.