Coral Park’s Play Pal Club consists of 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students that are peer mentors to students who are 'differently-abled'. At the beginning of each school year, select students that exhibit traits such as: leadership, responsibility, the ability to make up class work missed, and kindness go through a training program that teaches them how to work with children with autism and other special needs. Students who have low self-esteem, or have a special need themselves, also have the opportunity to be a “Play Pal” as well since this has shown to have a significant increase in self-confidence.
Once the students are trained, they are assigned to go into classrooms, recess, lunch, and specials on a regular basis to work with, play with and model social skills for these students. The benefits of such a peer buddy system are exponential.
Children with autism struggle with initiating and maintaining peer relationships. Play Pals encourage and guide students to interact in a social way that may not come naturally. By making connections with typical peers, the feelings of isolation and loneliness, that are characteristics of autism, are decreased. Although the Play Pals are of great help to students with special considerations, the Play Pals benefit as well. The Play Pals become leaders amongst their peers. They are able to educate their friends and family members about the differently-abled. This can decrease potential bullying situations or discrimination in the school. It gives them the ability to generalize acceptance of others out in the community. Some of the Play Pals have even expressed an interest in becoming a teacher someday. Coral Park Elementary has found that by integrating the Play Pals into the school day, the special needs population has increased their social skills, their communication skills, their cognitive skills, and their self esteem. Play Pals has given them a sense of being a part of a group.
The Play Pal program is a "Win-Win" situation for typical students as well as those with special considerations. Coral Park is extremely proud of their program and hope that other schools will mirror this program at their site.