I started doing Waterworks parkrun in Belfast in July 2015 and my weekends haven’t been the same since. I start most weekends meeting friends, chatting, socialising and having a coffee before I’m reminded that there’s the small matter of a 5k to complete!
The following year when I noticed the banner announcing the start of a Waterworks junior parkrun I wondered if this was something my younger son Peter could become involved in as it would be an opportunity for him to take part in exercise, which he really enjoys and to do that in the company of other children – which he doesn’t like so much!
Peter has autism, Tourette’s and moderate learning disabilities so while he really enjoys taking part in physical activities, he finds in really difficult to socialise with others and be part of a bigger group.
Peter’s first parkrun was in April 2016 and while I knew Peter would get stimulation from running, I was really apprehensive about how he would react to so many other aspects of the day. Peter’s disabilities mean he sees and understands things differently. He has great difficulty in following what the rest of us intuitively know as “the rules of the game”. To cope, he prefers to set his own agenda so that he can stay in control of a situation. He can easily become over stimulated with noise and activity and will get confused with instructions.
As with any parkrun, the colour, noise, buzz and excitement are what help make the event so enjoyable and pleasing for children. Peter needs to be introduced to each stage slowly so that he can understand what he has to do and have time to get ready for whichever activity comes next. It means splitting the parkrun event into about 20 separate parts for Peter and using visual signs to guide him through each stage. The real challenge is striking the balance – working with Peter so that he doesn’t become overawed by all that’s going on and also letting him enjoy the fun and excitement.
How does junior parkrun help Peter? You couldn’t ask for a better group of people than parkrun volunteers! What struck me immediately was the openness, patience and genuine warmth Peter and I received from everyone in hi-vis yellow. As Peter was unfamiliar with the course I would have run with him at first. After a few months it was clear Peter realised that not every child ran with a grown-up and he wanted to be just like them. For quite some time he would tell me “daddy, stop your feet!” and “don’t follow me”.
There are so many people I could single out who have helped Peter along his parkrun journey and helped him follow the junior parkrun code. The numerous volunteers who have run the course with Peter, helping him navigate. There’s also the Tail Walker whose patience must have been tested so many times when Peter has chased the resident park geese not to mention time he thought it was a good idea to try and adopt and take home a swan from the park!
What really thrills me though is just how much encouragement and support the parkrun team gives to all junior runners and the endless enthusiasm and energy which is shown by them every week. At any one time there are about twenty sets of eyes on Peter so I know, despite his best efforts, he’ll never get into danger. The difference in Peter’s development over the past two years has been quite amazing.
As well as now knowing all the volunteers, Peter has formed strong friendships with a number of other children who he really looks forward to meeting each week and who he now runs with. Children on the autism spectrum disorder and with learning disabilities can be really isolated and there is always a great need for after-school clubs and sports clubs to tackle this community isolation. Peter will always find socialising difficult but junior parkrun certainly has increased his confidence, makes him feel part of the running community and he’s no longer hindered by his dad traipsing after him!
While I no longer have to follow Peter each week I haven’t stopped my feet! I now use each parkrun as a chance to don the high-vis bib and marshalling – which really involves cheering, clapping and high-fiving the children as they run the course. And like Peter, I really enjoy the ice lolly that, thanks to the volunteers, is a regular feature of finishing Waterworks parkrun.
I would repeat the message that parkrun is for all and, junior parkrun especially, is for all children of all abilities. The understanding and genuine commitment shown by volunteers should assure any parent that it’s safe and rewarding for their children to take part. Safety always comes first but it’s that sense of fun and achievement which Peter takes home each week which is priceless! Thank you junior parkrun.
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