29/11/2015 12:59 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Occupational Therapy Program Using Rugby To Help Children Thrive

Johnnie Pakington via Getty Images
Young boy receiving a pass in a rugby training session on a grass pitch

Sport is becoming more prevalent as a key tool in helping with development both at a broader community level and more particularly at an individual level -- socially, physically, emotionally and interactively.

Carlien Parahi is a paediatric occupational therapist in New South Wales who has a strong interest in sensory processing in children who have special needs, ranging from sensory practicing (processing) disorders, autism and social and emotional behavioural issues.

She is the co-founder of Sense Rugby, a program using occupational therapy methods, incorporating the basic elements from the sport of rugby, to facilitate development in children.

Parahi says the Sense Rugby program is essentially about creating inclusion for children with difficulties in engaging in normal group situations and helping them to develop both physical and emotional skills. Sport has proven to be a good vehicle for this.

"There are a number of different things that can hold kids back and we feel that the participation in sport is something that can really help them achieve improvement in those areas. So inclusion is a big part," she told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Within occupational therapy, we use a lot of principles of Sensory Regulation [involving] things like crashing and bashing onto different sorts of mats and materials -- running, climbing, crawling -- a very active kind of therapy. [The idea] grew out of some of these kids needing deep pressure and muscle engagement," she said.

Assisting Carlien with the running of the program is her husband, rugby player Jesse Parahi, former long-time member of the Australian Rugby Sevens team. Jesse retired from union earlier this month having been part of the Australian team to successfully qualify for the Olympics, and is now training with the Wests Tigers in preparation for the 2016 NRL season.

Carlien says Jesse's physical capabilities and understanding of the process in the sensory engagement element of the program are an asset when he takes part in the sessions.

“They might have co-ordination difficulties or it’s sometimes more that they actually need intense physical activity to help them to regulate and help them to control their movements a little bit more, so with that, Rugby is actually perfect because they can get that physical contact without it being inappropriate (and) doing it in a structured setting,” she said.

(Jesse Parahi working with one of the children at St Brendan's School Lake Munmorah Photo: supplied)

Carlien points out that many families cannot easily access this type of health care and knows that running a program like this has changed that for many parents.

"Using a sports format has made it more accessible and creates the opportunity for a discussion with parents and teachers around what the kids might benefit from," she said.

"Behavioural, social or emotional challenges faced by many kids are often much more than meets the eye. Factors such as muscle tone, sensory processing skills and attention can be major contributors, which make a program like Sense Rugby perfect to address these challenges using a bottom-up approach," she adds.

For the children of this predominantly technological generation, OT programs such as this one can be invaluable, according to Carlien Parahi, and she anticipates doing a research project as a result of monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of the program.

“Movement continues to be proven to be essential to healthy development, not just for the obvious physical benefits, but also for things like the development of healthy nervous systems and cognitive development. I think it’s increasingly important, because we are in such a sedentary lifestyle -- technology for kids is so abundant -- in order for their bodies and their brains to develop they need to be moving; so that’s another part for us that’s really important in giving this access to kids through camps (and the sessions) who need it,” she said, adding that the delight shown by the children in successfully becoming part of a team is an example of one of the more immediate positive aspects of the program.

From Jesse’s point of view it’s more personal. He remembers being the kid who had trouble concentrating at school but says a program like this could have made all the difference for him and his parents.

“I’ve always been intrigued with what she (Carli) has to say about the kids she works with and the stuff she says basically relates to me and it felt like if I’d had this help at a young age, this sort of intervention, things could have been very different for me,” he said.

“I really want these kids to be able to have access to that. So it’s really nice for me to be able to get involved in this -- to be able to work with these kids in this environment is such a blessing for me. It’s always something that I’ve wanted to do.”

Currently running sessions in a local school in the Central Coast region of New South Wales, several more schools, local and regional, have expressed interest, inviting the Parahis to run the Sense Rugby program in 2016.

Thank you St Brendans for having us in today! I don't know who had more fun, us or the kids! ☺️☺️

Posted by SenseRugby on Wednesday, 14 October 2015
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