Magic Mountain: How Bowling Brightens Lives of Special Needs Children in New Hampshire

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

Candlepin bowling is a sport that does not enjoy much exposure in a magazine devoted to tenpin bowling. But this is no typical candlepin bowling story.

That story begins in 1953, the year the Crotched Mountain School in Greenfield, N.H., was founded to serve children afflicted with polio. The facility has evolved over the years to serve as a school for the deaf and, more recently, a residential school providing a community experience for children ages 5 to 21 who span a broad range of emotional, psychological and physical challenges. The school’s two-lane candlepin bowling facility opened in 1960 and enjoyed an extensive renovation in 2013 thanks to a $50,000 gift from Mary and William Kiernan.

David Johnson, VP of Marketing and Communications for the Crotched Mountain Foundation, explains that the needs of the school’s students “run the gamut — a lot of autism diagnoses, but sometimes that is combined with other things like OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] or brain injuries, rare neurological disorders or physical disabilities like cerebral palsy.”

Candlepin bowling facilitates a primary goal of the school, “because it’s all about small steps with our kids, small goals to get to a bigger goal. I think bowling is a really nice microcosm of that process,” Johnson explains.

Magic Mountain: For Crotched Mountain School teachers such as Matt Nevins (with student Karly Erickson), bowling is a uniquely accommodating activity for special-needs children.
Magic Mountain: For Crotched Mountain School teachers such as Matt Nevins (with student Karly Erickson), bowling is a uniquely accommodating activity for special-needs children.

For Jenn Clarke, one of the certified therapeutic recreation specialists on staff with Crotched Mountain School, those small steps are a big reason why bowling is an ideal activity for students with the kinds of needs she is trained to address.

“A lot of our kids have trouble breaking down simple movements, so if they see the bowling ball, they know they want to throw it, but trying to plan in their brains to talk to their muscles to actually pick up that ball and throw it where they want is a complex process,” Clarke explains. “You don’t realize what the brain goes through just to be able to break down a task into smaller steps.”

Johnson sees no reason why the school’s students could not essentially graduate from candlepin to tenpin bowling later on.

“While candlepin bowling is a uniquely New England brand of bowling, there are many tenpin lanes all around the region. Adaptive equipment like ramps allows people of all abilities to enjoy tenpin bowling. All of our students who learn the concepts of bowling in our lanes can ‘graduate’ with ease to tenpin bowling, using similar accessibility solutions,” he explains.

That accessibility is the very reason why the largest group of athletes the school sends to the Special Olympics each year comprises bowlers, because the school has “so many kids in wheelchairs who aren’t able to use power wheelchairs, which would allow them to do things like kick a soccer ball, [but] they can use a ramp and get that cause and effect of the ball knocking down pins.”

The sense of belonging and achievement those students enjoy at the Special Olympics are, for Clarke, a profoundly rewarding thing to witness.

“Our kids are so used to being the ones who are singled out as requiring a lot of equipment and assistance with almost anything, so when they are surrounded by kids who are not unlike themselves, you see a different side of them,” Clarke says. “Once they win a medal, the look on their faces is not like anything else I have ever seen.”

For Johnson, bowling’s benefits extend beyond the lanes, too.

“The end game is to get our students to a point where they can live successful and rewarding lives,” he says.

That is why bowling has been a part of the student experience at Crotched Mountain School for 57 years.

“It helps as a gateway from their residential lives here into the community,” Clarke says.

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