Learners with Down Syndrome Excel in National Games

Four athletes from the SOWLE Centre in Johannesburg won a total of nine medals in the recent SASAII Open Elite National Games.

Four learners from SOWLE Centre, a special needs school in Benoni, Johannesburg recently excelled when they collectively won nine medals at the South African Sports Association for
Intellectually Impaired (SASAII) Open Elite National Games which were held in Polokwane from 2 to 6 October 2023. Seven of the nine medals were for athletics and two for futsal (indoor soccer with less players).

To compete the learners, who have Down syndrome, had to be 16 years or older and had to qualify at the provincial selections to represent Gauteng.

Athletic abilities

SOWLE Centre’s sport journey began in 2018 when Matthew van Heerden became our first learner to qualify for the South African Games. That year, Matthew won Gold for shotput, making him the best Down syndrome (*T21) under 13 male for shotput in South Africa in that year.

In 2023, Matthew won Gold for a long jump of 3.13 meters, making him the current best male Down syndrome (T21) long jumper. The games also saw Matthew achieve his personal best in javelin with a 17.65m throw, and he won his heat in the 100m, cutting the tape at 15.35 seconds. Matthew’s favourite event is running followed by discus, javelin and long jump. “Sport helps us to build team spirit and trust,” he says.

Nondumiso Khumalo is another athlete that is doing SOWLE Centre proud, having won double gold in javelin and discus at the games in 2022, making her the South African champion for females with Down syndrome (T21) for the events in that year. In 2023, Nondumiso won a silver for discus. She loves the competitive aspect of the games as well as the fact that they allow her to see different parts of the country.

Newcomers to the games, Jessica Riley and Matthew Hansrod, also performed brilliantly with both winning silver for long jump and 1500m walk, respectively. Jessica also won a bronze for discus, achieving a personal best with a throw of 10.13 meters. She says she enjoys sport as it makes her healthy, fit and strong.

Matthew van Heerden, meanwhile, won a bronze for javelin and recorded a personal best of 12:11:31 minutes for the 1500m walk. Matthew loves competitive walking and says that it makes him happy. “Getting medals is the best part,” he adds. Matthew van Heerden and Matthew Hansrod also played futsal for Gauteng and, despite it being their first time competing in this event, helped to win silver for the team.

Down Syndrome learners at SOWLE Centre

Physical education at SOWLE

The aim of SOWLE Centre is to train and develop our learners to become functioning and contributing members of society, who live as independently as possible.

Based on a tranquil plot in Benoni, we have ample space for outside play and activities. The learners often go on nature walks and explore their surroundings by using all of their senses and applying practical skills and experi- ences learnt in the classroom.

We firmly believe that learners with special needs are capable of anything they put their minds to. With the correct stimulation, our learners become motivated and celebrate every success no matter how small.

School spirit

The whole school roots for our athletes when they go off to compete, and when they return their achievements are celebrated by all. There is always healthy competition between peers and the learners thrive from motivating and encouraging each other, especially on days that things aren’t going so well.

SOWLE Centre also offers cultural activities like dance, drama, body and instrument percussion, individual vocal and piano lessons as well as extra art lessons, ensuring a holistic approach to each child’s development. During the recent Alberton Eisteddfod held in August 2023, SOWLE had four item winners (meaning they were the best out of all the entries from all the schools in that division), 14 platinum ninety-plus diplomas, 27 gold certificates and three silver certificates.

We are extremely proud of our learners and look forward to seeing what they will accomplish in future years.

Learners from SOWLE Centre at the National Games

About SOWLE Centre

SOWLE Centre pronounced ‘soul’ is a non-profit with the aim of educating higher-functioning children with Down syndrome and other special educational needs such as autism, global development delay and speech apraxia, to the highest possible level for each learner. Our school caters for children who do not “fit” into remedial education classes as they may be two or more years behind in their development.

However, SOWLE’s unique environment and curriculum lets pupils learn through hands-on activities and play, rather than mainstream “paper-based” learning. We adapt the environment and learning styles to suit each learner, rather than trying to adhere to a “table and chair” based environment.

Our ongoing observation-based assessment ensures that learners are constantly challenged, and progress is a main focus of SOWLE. The staff are committed to equal opportunities for children of all cultures, and for both boys and girls, and our class- rooms are divided into specific learning areas with numerous resources assigned to each area which can be adjusted to specific learning objectives.

Individual and group-based learning is encouraged through hands-on activities and play. Each classroom is also equipped with an interactive white- board where songs and drama are just one of our many methods we use to encourage learning.

SOWLE Centre is also proud to have a state-of-the-art computer room where every child, from as young as four year’s old, is taught computer skills. Learners are equipped with bluetooth headsets, an extra-large screen and a special- needs keyboard to ensure all their special educational needs are catered for. The headsets allow the educator to tailor learning programmes based on a learners’ individual educa- tional needs and focus for that term.

Occupational and speech therapy are an important part of what we offer, and group-based therapy is scheduled during the normal school day from Monday to Thursday. Our core curriculum is based on the UK-based Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum (EYFS). This curriculum is a hands on, play-based, physical curriculum which suits the needs of learners with Down syndrome and most other special needs.

*T21 is a genetic chromosome 21 disorder causing developmental and intellectual delays.