BTTB goes Surfing
There’s something about the sound of the ocean and the feel of sand underneath your feet that evokes a sense of calmness; Throw in the exhilarating thrill of ‘catching a wave’ and it’s not difficult to understand the benefits of surfing for both mental and physical wellbeing.
Last week, the BTTB team were extremely lucky to spend a beautiful Welsh sunny evening volunteering with Surfability; an accessible surfing company for children and young people with disability. The setting: Caswell Bay; A beautiful family friendly beach on the Gower Peninsula.
Surfability UK is a community interest company that was first established in 2013 in response to the high demand for accessible surfing lessons in the area. The company caters for the needs of children with both mental and physical disability utilising innovative surfing equipment as well as the support of its friendly volunteers to provide a caring and inclusive learning environment where young people can both learn to surf and find opportunities to socialise.
With very little surfing experience ourselves we were slightly apprehensive about facing the water that evening. Luckily the weather was beautiful and the waves at their gentlest. So with the support of Ben (company director) and several regular volunteers we were kitted out in some very flattering wet suits and ushered into the ocean…
The children were amazing and with a little encouragement to paddle at the opportune moment and a push towards the shore, it was clear that some were already on their way to becoming pro surfers. Having dabbled with surfing twice previously and never quite having managed to stand on the board, I was mightily impressed by the finesse and fearlessness of children, some as young as 7.
The evening session was attended by predominantly children with autistic spectrum disorder but Surfability also provides for children with all sorts of additional needs. They have a ‘giant’ tandem surf board for those who can’t ride independently as well as a surf board with a mounted chair. Nothing seems to faze them, from seizures to difficult behaviour. We spent an hour in the water with one particularly cheeky individual with a great fondness for splashing volunteers and an amazing ability to become a ‘dead weight’ when asked to do anything.
Sessions were run over 1 hour and well attended by volunteers so that most children had 1:1 support if required. Sessions are tailored to the needs of the child ranging from ‘having a bit of a splash around’ to more formal surf tuition. There were 3 sessions that evening which meant 3 hours in the water for us and as as the day started to lose its heat we were very glad of our wetsuits and became increasingly hungry for chips. We had a brilliant time and were inspired by the trained instructors, many of whom had been instructing all day yet continued to demonstrate enthusiasm and patience.
The final session of the evening was attended by several teenagers with high functioning autism. I was struck by the social benefits of the initiative for these young people who despite being a little disappointed at the lack of waves that evening, were able to entertain themselves chatting whilst lying on their boards. For these young people who are often excluded from so many different aspects of life and society this opportunity seemed extremely valuable.
The company run sessions most evenings on Caswell beach and are always grateful for new volunteers. I understand that there are plans to run sessions from Porthcawl (a little nearer to Cardiff) from next year. They also provide 1:1 surfing lessons at Swansea’s indoor surfing facility as the weather can be a little unpredictable. Have a look at the website and email Ben if you’re interested. I’m sure they’d be happy to hear from you.
It was lovely to meet some of the parents that evening as well. Volunteer mum Karenza, who has 2 children with autistic spectrum disorder, highlighted the importance of social opportunities for young people with autism and signposted us towards a local parents Facebook group in South and West Wales called ‘Join the Dots’ where parents of children with additional needs can share information about opportunities that are available.
The benefits of surfing for children with autism and other disability are anecdotal but increasingly recognised and a tiny pilot study in America has demonstrated the benefits for both physical fitness, social development, improving self-esteem and reducing anxiety. Whether it’s the sensory benefits of being in the water, the understanding of the skilled volunteers or the benefits of physical activity, young people certainly seem to enjoy it and initiatives are cropping up left, right and centre.
For those in the South West of England, The Wave Project is a good place to start. The benefits of surfing have also been recognised in other groups of children and Global Boarders is a Cornwall based initiative that provides surfing opportunities for young people with behavioural difficulties who may have faced exclusion from education. The benefits of physical activity for children with additional needs are not specific to surfing but if you’re lucky enough to have a beach and an accessible surfing initiative near you; it certainly seems a good place to start!