Photo by Danny Green

A Special Needs Soccer League that Does it All

Starting back in 2007, Just4kixs is a non-profit inclusive soccer league that aims to provide children with disabilities an accepting environment to play soccer. During a time when very few social and physical activities existed for those with disabilities, Just4Kixs was created to accommodate those who were rejected by previous soccer leagues on part of their child’s disability. 16 years later, Just4Kixs soccer has grown from a small group of parents and children to one of the largest sports organizations supporting children with special needs and other impairments. It features teams with emphasis on ability over age, allowing players to slowly move up between teams as they learn and improve. It also famously is known for its buddy system, in which volunteers, usually children between 12 and 18, work one on one with a paired player, providing these players with someone who can watch over them, be there as a friend, and be there to tell them they’re doing a good job. Hundreds of children have gone through this program, and its framework is designed not only for those involved to have fun and have an activity to do, but is also geared towards individual growth for all those involved. It may not be something you can do in the average classroom, but is one of the most creative and successful outdoor educational programs I’ve ever had the opportunity to witness and be a part of.

My Experience

In my personal experience, this program really does work miracles. While this league may not be available to everyone due to its location in New Jersey, if you as an educator, para, or any other teaching position within the area are asked about activities for a special needs child to participate in, this is the place to go. Just4kixs is the largest soccer organization supporting children with special needs and other impairments within the country, and the results of this program and the potential provide a child with special needs an activity and social environment are so valuable, that many parents have been willing to travel long distances to have their child participate. I’ve coached at the league for years, and watched first hand as some of my players were evaluated and moved up from my team to a higher level one. The systems in place for learning help all kids, regardless of ability, and provides a social setting for kids who are not normally able to participate in recreational soccer. The league is always looking for more volunteers, and I would highly recommended this program to any parent of a child with a disability, or as an opportunity for older children who wish to work with special needs children and adults in the future.

Photo by Danny Green

Theoretical Benefits

Aside from various parent testimonials, Just4kixs soccer offers an environment that is unique to most other settings geared towards learning. It’s very structure seems to reflect popular theories of the past in regards to child development, and tackle this development in more angles than usually achievable by a single learning setting. Examples of these theories include but are not limited to:

  • Social Learning Theory
  • Constructivist theory
  • Montessori Learning
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Motor Skill Development / Physical Activity
  • One on One Learning
  • Low Risk Socialization

Each of these is encompassed in some way every day that a player comes down to the field, and starts kicking around a ball. 

Social Learning Theory: Defined as learning new behaviors through observations of others, then imitation of their actions and modeling. At J4K, players regardless of ability learn from one another through observing the actions of their one to one buddy volunteer, but also through the other children around them in how they may act at a certain game or activity. If a player has their buddy show them how to kick a ball, it’s most likely that they will try and kick it too after watching their buddy as a model, and imitating them.

Constructivist Theory: Defined as learning through construction of knowledge or scaffolding; building upon prior experiences to solve new problems. J4K players generally fall into this learning theory as they grow older, or are evaluated to move up teams. When a player on a team that does drills, and basic skills is ready, they can move up to a team with more advanced skills, or even move up to a low stress practice soccer game. The skills taught at each team all build off the previous team. From kicking, to dribbling, to passing, and eventually scoring goals, this theory applies to players whenever they advance to a new level.

Montessori Learning: Less of a learning theory and more of an environment to foster learning, Montessori style education in children is defined as learning through activity directed by the child, and play with others. At J4K, players are encouraged to socialize with their buddy volunteer, but also with the other players on their team. They can pursue specific activities and drills they find the most fun, and direct themselves with the buddy following them, or if need be, as many of the buddy volunteers are slightly older children, they can help direct the player not as a parental figure, but as a friend. With each field hosting activities based on skill level, each child generally is capable to perform each activity at their leisure, and do so through hands on physical play.

Collaborative Learning: Defined as learning from one another as a group (often to complete a similar goal), this theory also is reflected in the day to day of J4K. For both the more skill and drill style teams, and the teams operating with real soccer games, players often learn and work together to achieve common goals. These buddies and players form undeniable bonds between one another, and these bondshelp lead to setting goals. Sometimes goals in a literal sense, like with that of passing a ball to score on the other team, but other times goals in the sense of getting the most soccer balls in their teams corner in the 4 corner style relay race. The players work together, high five, and strive to achieve a common goal with the other players around them. One can also argue that the relationship between the player and the buddy volunteer can equally work as collaborative learning, as this volunteer may often teach their player a new skill, or set personal goals in behaviors, actions, or activities. 

Motor Skill Development / Physical Activity: Motor skills, or skills in the movement of the body, are general beneficial skills that improve one’s ability to move around, and maneuver one’s body. These are skills learned in nearly all sports. At J4K these skills are learned in interactions such as running, stretching, walking, and kicking, all of which help players live a bit more healthy through exercise. 

One on One Learning: One on one learning is a method often used by therapists and paraprofessionals, especially when working with children on the spectrum. It’s also effective in small classroom settings with teachers, but is not always an option within public schools. At J4K however, this kind of learning is available to players every week they attend, as they are paired with a buddy volunteer who acts as both a friend, guardian, and teacher. They work one on one together every minute they’re at the field, making this approach a common practice at the league. The goal of this one on one according to the league is to help players follow one step comands, then move on to two step commands, so on and so fourth. The idea is that with this one to one partner and friend can help the player not only in soccer through this understanding and communication, but outside of soccer, like when answering or performing these commands at home.

Low Risk Socialization: This program is of great benefit to all children, especially with children who may have social deficits. Learning to talk to others is hard, and not something generally taught in regular school environments, but not at Just4kixs. At J4K, there is no judgement on the soccer field. It’s all about acceptance. Nobody is going to judge a child or fello player for tears, or tantrums. Along with this, parents at soccer can also find support from other parents, use the soccer as a time to take a break, but also give or receive advice from parents of children with similar behaviors or abilities. They can have someone else to talk to, not having to go by experience alone in raising their child. Just4kixs also encourages players to socialize with their buddy, who can be a friend to the player if need be, but also encourages them to interact and make friends with other players who may also have similar interests or social difficulties. This program brings together a massive community of children with special needs, all of whom benefit a great deal from the socialization with others of similar interest and ability level. In discussions with some older players, I’ve even been told that the social aspects are more valuable to some players than the soccer itself, but they come for both anyway. This accepting community is one of both fun and educational value, and again, is something that I highly recommend to players and parents alike.

How to Sign Up

Helping a parent sign up is really as simple as going to the Just4Kixs site, and sending the link to the parent. You can let them know what the program can do for their child as an outdoor activity, and from there most parents are usually quick to sign up.

Many parents tend to sign up quickly, for those who may be a bit more hesitant, I would recommend sending them a link to the Just4Kixs Testimonials page. After hearing what many of the past parents and coaches of the program have to say about it, those more hesitant parents might just sign up immediately.

This is one of the largest and award winning programs of it’s kind within the nation, and it’s not every day that opportunities to join something like this come around. I hope with the information provided above and within the many links of this page can be used and shared by educators and parents alike can share this page, and spread the word of this creative and effective outdoor educational program.