Tonawanda News

October 19, 2013

Making fitness fun

New activity walls bring touch of high-tech to NT elementary gym classes

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — There are flashing lights. There are electronic sounds. There are targets to hit and goals to reach and competitions to win.

But students at North Tonawanda elementary schools aren’t playing video games in class. They’re getting physically fit — and they’re having a good time doing it.

As part of the Carol M. White Physical Education program and its associated $1.43 million federal grant, the school district recently added interactive wall panels called Sportwalls to gymnasiums at its four elementary schools. Each school has six of the walls, which are used by all grade levels during physical education classes.

Earlier this week at Meadow Elementary School, district Athletic Director Cindy Bullis observed as a class full of second-grade students played a game requiring them to run across the gym floor, hit a lit-up target on the wall with a foam baton and dash back to their team.

“They don’t even realize how hard they’re working because they’re having so much fun,” she said. “This is how you bring technology into physical education.”

Each panel features seven circular, touch-sensitive targets. They can be programmed for multiple games and activities, to keep individual scores or team scores and to work at different skill levels for different age groups. There are different configurations: Lower targets can be used to work on soccer skills; higher targets for football and basketball. A line marks where a tennis net would fall so that students know if shots would have scored points in that sport. And there are more general aspects to to the games as well, encouraging cardio exercise and building accuracy and strength.

The game the children were playing in that class, for example, helps them work on arm strength, running and accuracy, Bullis said.

“The possibilities for kids are endless,” she said as the game ended and the winning team cheered. “They’re just going home so excited about all the things they can do.”

The program provided the money for the Sportwalls, which are made by Xergames and cost about $30,000 per gym. The grant is meant, in part, to be used for ways to increase students’ interests in physicality, and the walls do that by making everything a game, said Nancy Miranto, physical education department coordinator.

“They’re just ways to get the kids moving and liking movement and being excited about coming to class,” she said. “Different teachers are finding different ways to use it every day.”

For example, some teachers use the walls and their activities for class warmups, while others use them for a cool-down, or a reward for the end of class, said Katie Feldmann, program coordinator. The different games can also be tailored to different age and skills groups.

“With the kindergartners, as long as they throw and hit the wall, they’ll get points,” she said. “In the fifth grade, if you hit the target, you’ll get five points ... and if you miss the target, you’ll lose points. 

“You can distract them with modern technology without them realizing they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s a fun way to encourage them.”

It seems to be working. Students taking part in the class said that they look forward to getting to their physical education class and finding out they’re using the walls.

“They’re really fun,” said Ryan Tuite, 7. “You can play multiple games on them — and I like them all.”

Jovann Wilmott, 7, called the new technology “cool.”

“I like that we can do a whole lot of stuff like games. Those walls can’t do things like that,” she said, waving a hand at the rest of the gymnasium walls. “They’re just regular old walls. And these can.”

The grant is spread over three years and will include a variety of improvements to the district’s physical-education facilities. The district was also able to triple the size of the high school’s fitness room and add a middle school fitness room, and new climbing walls will be installed in the elementary gymnasiums sometime between December and February, Bullis said. Other additions including a Frisbee golf course, badminton, pool weights and spinning classes planned for the next several years.