A pair of Pleasantville Middle School students were engaged in a heated game of tennis during gym glass on a recent morning.
Their classmates gathered around them, hanging on every volley and cheering at every point. And when the victor fired the match-winning shot past his lunging opponent, he turned and handed his video game controller - not a racket - to the next student in line.
Pleasantville's approach to gym classes mirrors a nationwide trend in which schools have moved toward programs and activities that students can practice daily. Locally, Assumption Regional Catholic School in Galloway Township incorporates dancing into many of its gym programs, while students at Myron L. Powell School in Lawrence Township, Cumberland County, use an interactive sports-training program during gym.
"Physical education instruction, the way it used to be, doesn't work anymore," interim Pleasantville Superintendent Garnell Bailey said shortly after competing against a student in the video game. "We have to meet our children where they are. We have to use the technology available to us to keep our students energized and active."
This month, Pleasantville's school district is planning to spend approximately $16,000 to equip its schools with eight Nintendo Wii video game systems for its students to use during gym class, said district technology coordinator Robert Bloom.
Each Wii system will be accompanied by a complete set of controllers, a portable cart and a 42-inch television.
Carolyn Masterson, a National Association for Sport and Physical Education board member and Monclair State University associate professor, said that national wake-up call for gym classes came in 1996 in the form of a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study.
Masterson said the CDC study linked the lack of physical activity with disease.
"Ever since then, physical fitness has become more of an important issue for school children," Masterson said . "Students should be moving 50 to 60 percent during any one period, which is now called 'active learning time.' But the old, traditional ways of teaching phys. ed. were not working. And therefore, teachers have had to come up with much more clever ways of getting everyone involved and gauging physical fitness."
So in a time when the CDC estimates that about one in every five children under the age of 19 is obese - more than triple the rate from 30 years ago - Pleasantville's faculty is encouraging its students to put down the basketballs, forget about kickball and play video games.
"We expect participation to be up near 100 percent, which is almost unheard of," Pleasantville physical education teacher Erika Boehm said of the plan to use Wii systems in gym class. "That's because anybody can do it."
Boehm said playing the video game version of sports -- like tennis -- will help students more easily develop motor skills and an understanding of the sport before heading outside to attempt the real thing.
"It definitely levels the playing field. We can have students with handicaps who might not be able to participate in a game like tennis or at the same level as some of the other students, go head to head against the most athletic kids in class... and win," said Harry Green, also a physical education teacher.
Green said the use of the video games will extend beyond the largely stationary tennis and bowling.
"We also plan to use the Wii Fit program, which develops a whole fitness program specific to each student that takes into consideration their individual body mass and sets goals for them to reach," Green said.
It is no surprise that students welcome the change with open arms.
"Some kids get discouraged during gym because they might not be as big or as fast as other kids," said eighth-grader Antonio Arriola, 13 "I think it's great that they're integrating technology into their teaching to get more kids involved."
On a recent Tuesday morning in Galloway, Assumption Regional Catholic School's physical education teacher Cindy Walsh led a class of sixth and seventh graders through standard stretches and calisthenics such as jumping jacks, sit-ups and push ups, before asking for volunteers.
A host of hands shot up in the air.
"Wait, I have to tell you what it is first," she warned. "We are going to tango."
The girls in the class thrust their hands up higher, as most of the boys lowered theirs and buried their faces in them.
"Oh no!" one of the male students groaned into his palms just minutes before stepping on his female dance partner's toes.
But after a quick lesson in the art of the tango, the students quickly went from blushing about their co-ed pairings - which were done to an unsolicited chorus of pre-teen catcalls - to concentrating on trying to master the complex series of steps and body movements.
"I play basketball, but I liked doing the ballroom dancing today because it was something new and a good workout," said Victoria Picardi, 12, a seventh-grader from Galloway Township. "I'll probably never play professional basketball, but dancing is something I'll probably always be able to do."
Walsh, a former gymnast and Philadelphia 76ers dancer, incorporates dancing into her lesson plans as much as possible.
"Cardio-wise, dancing is a much better option because it gets more kids moving, more intensely and for longer period of time than they would in other sports, like soccer or softball, where there are only a few people competing at any one time," Walsh said. "As long as they give it their best shot, I'm happy."
By the time the class bell sounded, the student pairings had gone from being in two straight lines to scattered throughout the gymnasium. But, sure enough, most of them had to catch their breath from the workout they had just endured, which also included a line dance to "Cupid Shuffle" and a Zumba workout to "Let's Get Loud".
Like many of his male classmates, sixth grader Andrew Vekteris claimed that he would rather have been playing hockey or basketball than doing the tango.
"Because I don't like dancing," said Vekteris, 12, of Port Republic. "I am terrible at it."
But his tune quickly changed when asked about the more up-tempo line dancing and Zumba workouts.
"Oh that's a lot fun," he said. "Because they are usually to songs we all know, and it's a good workout."
Masterson commended Pleasantville for its efforts to implement technology into its physical education courses. But she said that the school district could have spent its money more wisely.
"I think they could have spent about as much money as they did to get something that is much more technological than the Wii and enables the whole class to participate, like HOP Sports," Masterson said of the interactive training system that uses digital technology and celebrity trainers - such as Cal Ripken Jr. - as an educational tool that promotes a healthy and active lifestyle. "The kids have so much fun that they actually forget that they're moving, and it is really amazing how much of a workout they get."
One of the only schools in the state that implements HOP Sports into its lesson plans is Myron L. Powell School in Lawrence Township, Cumberland County. Bob Williams, the athletic coordinator for the Powell school, said the school needed an $18,000 grant to pay for the system.
Its benefits were on display recently as an HOP Sports program led a group of middle school students through an exhausting circuit of activities from jumping a series of hurdles to working on their baseball swings.
"It definitely gets all the kids participating. I think they're active about 95 percent of the class, whereas if we were playing flag football or soccer, it might be a day when some kids don't fully participate," Williams said.
The HOP Sports program provides the small school another added benefit.
"We have such limited space when we have to stay indoors that sometimes I have to sit some of the kids in the bleachers for safety reasons when we do certain activities," Williams said while his class worked out in a room about the size of half a basketball court. "This enables an entire class to participate at the same time. They could do this in their classrooms if they had a hook up for it."
But Masterson said Pleasantville's students could still get an excellent workout by using Wiis in gym class, as long as the school's teachers don't rely on it as the only activity going on in class.
"If kids are waiting in line to get on the Wii, they're not being active enough, and that's bad teaching," she said. "But if some of the kids are working out or playing a game and some of the kids are playing Wii, then it's good teaching. Because kids love technology -- many of them have Wii's at home -- and having it as part of class is something the whole class can get excited about."
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