Skip to Content

Connecting communities through sport in specialist schools

Connecting communities through sport in specialist schools

At Oaklynn Specialist School in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, physical activity and sport doesn’t just support cognitive development and emotional regulation for ākonga, it benefits them socially. 

“Everybody needs to feel connected to their community, and sport does that,” says Associate Principal Emma Cutts.  

Through the support of Sport Waitākere’s Healthy Active Learning team, the West Auckland school has accessed funding through Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa for a year of dance classes, an adapted Weet-bix Try Challenge for specialist units in the area, and played inter-school matches through Netball Waitakere. There have also been PLD days for teachers and teacher aides in the region focused on inclusive practice. 

Shanley Joyce is the Healthy Active Learning Advisor at Sport Waitakere who supports Oaklynn and other mainstream and specialist schools in the region. A key part of her role is to ensure teachers have the tools and confidence to ensure all students have quality PE and physical activity experiences. This includes the 11 per cent of young people in Aotearoa between 8 and 15 who identify as disabled. 

“Sometimes students don’t get to participate in Health and PE lessons as teachers find it too challenging to bring them outside,” Shanley says. 

Tamariki in a running race

This reflects research from Sport NZ, which shows one of the biggest contributors to the lower rate of physical literacy amongst disabled tamariki is the limited availability of opportunities. 

Shanley’s main tip for kaiako wanting to help shift this is communication, both with students and whānau. 

“Talk to kids and ask them ‘what do you want to do and how can we make it work for you’. Taking the time can save so much heartache,” she says. Adding that it can often be as simple as the texture or colour of a ball, particularly for those neurodivergent students. 

Emma agrees it is important to make physical activity for any young person based around their interests. She also encourages kaiako to start small. 

Consider last year’s adaptive Weetbix Try-athalon. After trialling the event with two classes in 2022, they spent the next 12 months gently preparing students and teachers for the event ahead, sharing photos and videos of what they could expect. That included chill-out zones for students, bouncy castles, and medals and t-shirts for every participant. 

Emma says the day, which was held at the end of 2023, was amazing. Over 200 ākonga from Oaklynn and Arohanui Special Schools attended with their carers, kaiako, therapists, teacher aides. There were even students from Hobsonville Point Secondary and Te Atatu Intermediate there to cheer their friends from the satellite units on. One of the first events of its kind in Aotearoa, a similar event supported by Sport Auckland was held for central Auckland schools earlier this year. 

“The feeling of being included in such a large event and receiving special taonga like medals and uniforms, it’s not something we can easily create on our own,” Emma says. Adding that she would love to see the adaptive approach rolled out across the country but, if not, Healthy Active Learning has given them the blueprint to do it themselves. 

She says events like the TRY-athalon not only mean the school feels more visible within their community but also their own school gates. 

The school, which has 230 students in 11 satellite units across Central West Auckland, can face challenges when trying to integrate into the wider school community where their unit is situated.  

Shanley hopes to see that change and believes physical activity is the perfect platform to do so.  

“One of my little goals is to get mainstream schools who have satellite units working together a lot more because at the moment some do a good job, but for some there is room for improvement. 

For Emma, that would be a win-win for all students.  

“We want all children to leave school being young adults that care for the whole of their community, rather than othering people,” she says. 

When it comes to her hopes for the students at Oaklynn, providing opportunities to be active is all about supporting their wellbeing for years to come. 

“I would love for them to know themselves that movement is a strategy that they can go to, that will make them feel better.” 

Aktive, CLM Community Sport, Harbour Sport, Sport Auckland and Sport Waitākere are proud to be part of Healthy Active Learning in Tāmaki Makaurau. This sees the collective supporting primary and intermediate schools to create healthy and active learning environments and better connections to their local communities. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Education Gazette: Bringing the paralympic spirit into the classroom – Education Gazette).

For information on these initiatives and opportunities visit Physical activity in schools and kura.


Find out about the inclusion model, which is a useful framework for those developing play, active recreation and sport programmes to ensure inclusive opportunities and experiences for tamariki and rangatahi.

If you require an accessible version of any content on the site please contact us and we will be happy to assist.

Get Active
Find a sport or recreation activity
Browse Directory
Sport NZ
Who we are and what we do
Information on funding
Stay updated
Me whakahoutia

Sign up to our regular newsletters that connect Sport NZ to all those involved in the play, active recreation and sport sector.

burger close icon

Stay updated

Me whakahoutia

Keep up-to-date with news, events, and initiatives across the play, active recreation and sport sector.
No thanks