Gym class that's like 'stepping into a video game'

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Valley Day School Education Director Ron Hall instructs students as they take part in activities in the Lu Interactive Playground at the school in Morrisville Pa. MARK C. PSORAS/For the Inquirer

With the gym lights turned down low, video-game music throbbing, and a state-of-the-art projector system casting space-age targets onto two walls, a new kind of phys-ed class aimed at getting the post-Nintendo generation to get up and run around has arrived in the Philadelphia area.

It took the kids at the Valley Day School in Morrisville a few minutes to get the hang of newfangled games that were part-dodgeball, part-basketball, and part-Super Mario Brothers. But after several minutes of sometimes mad scrambling across the gym floor, one group of fifth and sixth graders was giggling and squealing and their hearts were almost certainly racing.

It’s exactly what the Canadian developers of this newfangled hybrid gym class, called the Lu Interactive Playground, were going for.

The $28,000 price tag for the system includes the two large projectors on the ceiling, two other devices that house lights and the computers that help teachers control 25 different games using hand-held controllers with keyboards. The games are projected on opposing gym walls, with synchronized lighting and sound effects, inviting kids to throw balls at targets ranging from animals to math problems to objects floating through space.

“It’s very fun – you get to interact with it, play around with it.” said eighth grader Scott Dangler, 13, of the sporting spectacle from augmented-reality design firm SAGA. “It’s like dodgeball – but more fun.”

Bemused but entertained by the high-tech competition he called “a very good workout” was physical education teacher James Romano – also the Jenkintown girls’ basketball coach, who just notched his 600th victory in his 36th season. Said Romano: “I don’t even have a cellphone – so this is outer space for me!”

Gym class had long been the last low-tech holdout as sleek laptops, virtual-reality goggles and other computer-driven learning tools have taken over traditional classrooms. But the computer age has also sparked the skyrocketing popularity of home video games and a rise in childhood obesity that experts have linked in part to kids shunning outdoor exercise to spend hours with their game controllers or on the web.

The concept behind SAGA’s Lu, which launched less than a year ago in a Quebec elementary school and which the company has installed in 30 locations worldwide this year, is quite simply that if you can’t beat video games, join them – by creating fast-moving games that drop kids into a high-tech playing field of augmented reality. The only other U.S. location is at a public elementary school in St. Louis.

“The kids we had in mind when we designed this were kids who were not really into sports, not good at sports or interested in sports,” said SAGA CEO Vincent Routhier.  Designers looked at “how can we find a way to make them active a little more – while they are not realizing they are training or exercising…” he said. With a background in film production, he got the idea for the Lu after seeing a video of a gym teacher who had hooked up his iPad to a projector to create interactive games for kids.

The idea of integrating computer technology into gym class is not completely new. It started with Dance Dance Revolution, the turn-of-the-millennium game that got kids moving their feet to video cues on a screen. Other gym classes make use of technology to allow students to monitor their heart rate, or to receive instruction from a video screen while the teacher is freed up to coach kids on their individual technique.

One experimental concept that gained traction in as many as 700 classrooms across the Philadelphia School District was Johnson & Johnson’s Activity Works, which asked kids to get up and move around during simulated activities like trips to a rainforest or outer space. Bettyann Creighton, the executive director of health, safety and physical education for the city schools, said the classroom exercise raised student heart rates and improved learning.

Camera icon Mark C. Psoras
Valley Day School ninth grader Darnell Braxton,right, and fellow students take part in activities in the Lu Interactive Playground instructed by Physical Education teacher James Romano,back right, at the school in Morrisville Pa. on Friday January 19,2018. Mark C Psoras/For the Inquirer

“The brilliant part about all of this is more and more teachers are understanding that movement and physical activity really does bring improvement in academic achievement,” Creighton said. “It turns the brain on for learning.”

Science supports that. One 2013 study of 12,000 Nebraska schoolkids, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found a strong correlation between a child’s physical fitness and higher achievement scores. That’s created an opening for high-tech entrepreneurs who say the best way to get students excited about exercise is to co-opt their fixation with video games.

Jarrod Saracco, a Delaware-based fitness industry consultant, said “it doesn’t matter if the kid’s an athlete or a video gamer…they’re both very competitive in their own nature. That kid playing Minecraft or Xbox, he wants to beat the game as much as [the] kid playing sports wants to beat his game.”

One of Saracco’s clients, Illinois-based Exergame Fitness, has created what relationship manager Parker Johnson called “an active learning lab” for kids at YMCAs or school gymnasiums, using exercise bikes or projections onto walls and floors. Johnson said the firm believes its products are particularly valuable for kids with anxiety issues or ADHD. “Exercise is a great way to settle the mind,” he said.

But Cheryl Richardson, senior director of programs at SHAPE America, a society of health and physical educators, said the new opportunities created by augmented reality in gym class could raise potential pitfalls for some students.

“It would probably not be a very friendly environment for students with autism – it could just be overwhelming,” Richardson said, adding she was also concerned whether the fast pace allows teachers to work with kids on skills that are traditionally part of phys-ed class, like encouraging good teamwork.

At the Lu session at Valley Day School, which has 90 kids in kindergarten through 12th grade who require emotional and academic support, Romano acknowledged that a lot of older kids prefer the sports they grew up with, like basketball or volleyball,  which the school still offers, but that begins to change somewhat after they see how much the younger kids enjoy the new interactive games.

Seventh grader Emma Prendergast, 13, said “I actually enjoy it, though I much prefer traditional games” that have a little more freedom. “With the computer you have to play the game the way it’s designed.”

Education director Ron Hall said the lights and sounds and images are engaging and create an emotional connection for kids, especially those who dislike traditional sports. The system can also project movies or PowerPoints, an added value that he used to sell it to the school’s board of directors.

“Now we’ve got to turn our brains on!” exclaimed Hall as he switched to a math game. The problem 9 plus 6 popped up on the screen surrounded by various numbers. Six fifth and sixth graders started throwing balls until they hit the right answer.

“Little kids love it because of the sound and the music,” Romano said. “It’s an extension of computers. That’s the generation we live in. It’s stepping into a video game.”

After math it was time for spelling. A picture of a bull popped up and the kids quickly threw balls at letters to spell the word. Then came a tough one…rhinoceros. After R, they were stumped. But it didn’t matter. They kept throwing balls until the game was over and it was time to go back to class.

The game, said Keirra Ciotti, 10, as she skipped back to class, was “spectacular.”