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Physical Educators Introduce Wall Climbing for Better Health - 2003-03-12


More Americans than ever before are overweight and the number of children in that category has doubled since the 1970s. Instead of looking at the rising level of obesity in children as an insurmountable wall, a public school system in Virginia is trying out a new and unique way to scale that barrier - literally.

Inside the gym at Science Focus Elementary School, kids run around, play a life-sized version of the board game Monopoly with a few exercise-related twists, and work their way along a 2.5-meter-high wooden wall. The climbing wall is covered with interesting plastic shapes called "holds."

Most resemble the same sort of rocks you might see if you were actually climbing a mountain, but some are shaped like toy cars, animals and other objects that appeal to kids.

Debbie DeFranko, the district's Supervisor for Health and Physical Education, says that climbing walls are a great opportunity for children, because they take away the competitiveness of team sports and put the focus on individuals challenging themselves.

"This is something that branches out to kids because it is an equalizer. You know you don't have to have a lot of athletic skill," she said. "As a matter of fact, it's been a very successful piece of equipment with our Special Education and special needs students.

"They get on this and they thrive," she continued. "They're just going all over the place. You don't have to have a lot of athletic talent. Coordination is very important, body control and strength, but there's also a lot of cognitive in terms of the paths and the routes that teachers place on the wall for them to choose their next step or their next hold."

And, that next move changes each time the students climb the wall. The teachers can change where the holds are placed, add different obstacles and even include educational challenges.

"They'll put up letters behind the wall," said Ms. DeFranko. "They'll tape them on the holds. They ask some of the younger elementary kids you know some of the younger elementary kids to pick out all the vowels. You can only climb on vowels. Or they put other activities on the wall. So they're using math, science, arts and music. We in our physical education program try to make a lot of interdisciplinary connections."

While climbing might sound a bit dangerous, the wall isn't very tall. The kids move sideways along the 12-meter-long course rather than up and down. Science Focus physical education teacher Jennifer Hall says that are rarely any problems.

"We have spotters and as you can see sometimes the spotters get bored, because the kids don't really fall off," Ms. Hall said. "When they do, the spotters are just there to make sure they don't fall back and hit their head. They're not there to protect them from everything, but we do have mats. Rarely do any kids fall off and I haven't had anyone get hurt. Maybe like a little scratched elbow from the textured wall, but that's about it."

In the quest to improve students' overall health and upper body strength, the climbing wall can be a great workout. But the big question is, how does it compare to the ever-increasing numbers of activities competing for youngsters' attention? Kids say, it ranks near the top.

"I like the corner where you can cross over, because it gives you a challenge about where you put your hands," said one of the students.

"I like it when you have cards at the top and you have to challenge yourself two ways. First you have to get them and then you have to do the exercise that goes with it," said the other one.

"I like how she has a match were you have to put your hands on each of the matches and try to figure out how to get across by using that. Also how she has the hula-hoops and the little ball and you have to get through the hoops and over the ball," explained another student.

There are seven climbing walls among various schools in the Arlington public school system. And there are plans to add more.

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