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Grayslake school uses video games as part of physical fitness program

By Megan Craig

TribLocal reporter February 9th at 2:41 p.m.

When it comes to grade school kids and video games, a Grayslake gym teacher says that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Woodview Elementary teacher Steven Feldman said he’ll do whatever he can to guide his students toward a healthier lifestyle – and his latest tools are a Wii video game system and its Fit Plus component.

Video games in gym class may seem like raising the white flag in the battle against childhood obesity. But Feldman said they help make fitness fun for youngsters practically born with a controller in their hand.

“Some kids don’t like to exercise,” he said. “But then I see them at recess and they’re running around and having fun. So this is a way to make it fun. When you get them active – that’s what it’s about.”

His methods are gaining popularity across the country at a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing. Nearly 20 percent of youth are considered overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

One parent has seen the light about gaming.

“They’re not playing Super Mario or Lego Star Wars during gym time,” said Emily Heidloff, whose daughter Corinne, 9, is a third-grader at Woodview. “There are strength-training exercises on Wii that the students may not otherwise learn about.”

The kids, meanwhile, are having a blast in gym. They get to participate in “all kinds of different games” when Wii is used in class, said Cassidy Beshel,9, a fourth-grader at Woodview.

“There’s dodge-ball and a soccer game. Yoga is my favorite,” said classmate Kai Jones, 9. “You get to stretch out and get your muscles all relaxed.”

Kai said after a solid Wii gym class, “I feel exercised. I feel all stretched out.”

Feldman has received grants for the past two years to buy new, innovative equipment for his students.

Last year he got about $340 to buy the Wii system and its Fit Plus physical fitness component. This year he got another $950 to buy 30 step-aerobics boards, which the students can use to exercise on along with the student who is using the Wii.

The district also owns a PlayStation system, which students use to compete in Dance Dance Revolution, a digital game that mixes synchronized stepping with upbeat music.

Full-class participation is an important aspect of using video games as physical education methods, said Cheryl Richardson, senior program manager for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

“Any technology should be supportive of the curriculum,” Richardson said. “It needs to have some educational relevance. And in this case, with fitness being the goal, obviously this is used to increase kids’ levels of physical fitness.”

She said “active gaming” is appropriate for schools as long as it’s used properly – “It should support the curriculum. It shouldn’t become the curriculum.”

In Wii Fit, an on-screen fitness guru acts as a teacher’s aide in the classroom. Between tips on maintaining balance by stretching the spine and lunging with knees at exactly 90 degrees, the digital cartoon encourages the students .

“Great job! Keep it up,” says the guru, clapping.

Feldman offers similar support, walking among the students as they try each new activity.

And the students work together as a team to achieve the highest scores possible. When students place first in the game’s digital ranking, the whole class cheers, marking a collective accomplishment while congratulating whichever student was on the digital board that time.

Student Corinne Heidloff has a Wii at home that uses to practice what she learns in gym class.

Feldman “ teaches them skills and teamwork for all of the ‘classic’ sports, but also mixes things up and keeps them interested in physical education,” said Lisa Bako, mother to Libby, a third-grader, and Matthew, a fifth grader. “The students look forward to gym class.”

Feldman said it took some trial-and-error before he found a way to make working out fun for elementary-aged kids.

Video games won’t replace the more traditional gym class activities, but such games bring the “wow factor” that generates enthusiasm for gym, a precious commodity, said Cathy Patzner, president of the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

“Exergaming” has taken off nationwide and many Chicago-area school districts are part of the trend, said Patzner, a physical education and health teacher at Lake Park High School in Roselle.

“If that’s going to get some kid motivated, then go for it,” she said.

Naperville’s schools have long embraced technology in physical education, and students at Lincoln Junior High School have been using a Wii machine since shortly after the gaming system came out, said physical education teacher Jay Havenaar.

The key drawback to using the system with middle schoolers is its tendency to distract the kids while they’re supposed to be engaged in other physical pursuits, he said.

But Havenaar said he loves how the introduction of a favorite technology brings stoic kids to life, overpowering their self-consciousness or fear of failure.

Wii games such as tennis or track and field, he said, soften the impact of victory and defeat familiar to anyone who has ever missed a crucial jumpshot in a basketball game.

“Even if they lose, they don’t really feel that bad because they’re playing a videogame,” Havenaar said. “Their self-worth is really protected.”

Students with special needs at Neuqua Valley High School have been using two Wii systems for years, said David Perry, chairman of the physical education department. The appeal of gaming keeps the kids motivated and the Wiis give those students opportunities that they might not find in more traditional gym activities, Perry said.

“A student that can’t walk, they can box on a Wii,” Perry said.

The system is perfect for kids who don’t like traditional forms of exercise, Feldman said.

Logan Smith, 9, a fourth-grader at Woodview, said he doesn’t like most exercises. But he loves using the Wii in gym class. He said he wishes he had one at home so he could play without going out in the cold.

“I like the obstacle courses,” he said, describing one class experience with a balance and timing-based game. “It was pretty funny, because they were up in the air and if one of these wrecking balls hit them, they fell off the side.”

Of course, students weren’t really in the air or being chased by wrecking balls – that was all happening to a Wii character. But the on-screen action keeps kids’ attention, Feldman said.

“I try to tell the kids, you don’t have to be in sports to exercise,” he said. “This is a different idea for them instead of the same things over and over.”

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