By Helaina N. Hovitz
Kids playing Wii shout across the room to each other while those cycling on the Gamebikes pedal faster and faster as they laugh loudly and nudge one another…and it’s just another gym class at P.S. 126, the Manhattan Academy of Technology.
The Chinatown school paid for the Wiis, flat screen televisions, Gamebikes, treadmills, rowing and elliptical machines with a $50,000 grant from the National Football League awarded over the summer.
John De Matteo, the school’s athletic director, said parents weren’t concerned about their children playing video games at school. “When the students went home and told their parents, they wanted in on the fun,” he explained. “The parent coordinator arranged a parent workout night, in which they came in with their kids to use the equipment and play the games.” There have been several parent fitness nights since then, and they hope to make it a regular thing.
De Matteo chose all of the equipment for the room. “I wanted to do something combining games with traditional exercise equipment. [The students are] inspired by something fun,” he said. “We have a full commitment from teachers, parents, the principal, and the community. With that, you can achieve the unthinkable.”
De Matteo said that while the games the students are doing is fun, they are still getting a full body workout.
Along with elementary school gym teacher Rob Mehan, the two developed the concept: the room was divided into three stations, and the class divided into three teams. The students spend 15 minutes at each station and rotate on a circuit which incorporates the use of every machine. De Matteo can most likely be founded parked by the treadmills, making sure the students don’t go past a certain level. “We don’t have any problems with them, they do fine, which is surprising because they are adult machines,” says De Matteo. “We can train them to use them properly,” he added.
On a visit last week, the students look elated to be participating in gym as they lined up down the hall, understandably so as they had a plethora of Wii games to choose from and a number of other fun yet physically demanding activities to do in the fitness room.
Sixth grader Cole Barker, 11, feels privileged. “I don’t think any other school has this, so it’s pretty amazing we get to have that experience,” he said. “I always brag about it to my friends.”
“Definite bragging rights,” a classmate agreed before they charged eagerly into the fitness room behind the gym.
Just a few months earlier, the space was a storage room, full top to bottom with chairs, tables, old science projects, and filing cabinets. A team of parents came in to help clean it out.
“The only problem is there’s not enough air conditioning,” said Barker, “but it’s amazing to be in here because it’s all video games.”
The students were open-mouthed and smiling as they played Dance Dance Revolution, one of the many Wii games offered in the class.
Dominic Jaquez, 12, stomped on the game pad happily as she said that she thinks they have the coolest gym class ever, but their teacher still commands their respect. “He’s a good teacher, but sometimes he can be strict. If some kids are playing around he’ll get mad, but nobody blames him.”
Cameron Smarl, 11, is glad that, “we still get the fitness we usually have in regular gym class, but it’s more fun.”
Grading is done on the basis of participation, effort, and sportsmanship.
De Matteo wants to create a school fitness club to meet before and after school as well. “I want to get full use out of this place,” he said as he surveyed the room. He hopes that the middle schoolers go on to ask for such facilities in high school.
The fitness room is also a hot commodity in drawing prospective students to the school. “Kids and parents who tour the school are flabbergasted,” said DeMatteo. “This should be in every school…if this school can lead the way and show people these methods work, I think more schools will catch on. It’s a new age in Phys. Ed. Kids don’t want to climb the rope or see who can do the most push ups, they just wanna have fun.”
“The lock on the gym door is the most important thing here,” said De Matteo. “The biggest problem is not being able to get the kids out of here.”
Coby Caraballo, 12, said his favorite activity is Wii Table Tennis, and that he now looks forward to coming to gym. “Last year we didn’t have this, so it wasn’t exciting. Now that we have it, it changed a lot of kids’ experiences.” He added that the class presents opportunities that some students might not otherwise have. “A lot of kids don’t have a Wii, so it’s awesome for them.”
Class is supposed to end with the blow of De Matteo’s whistle, but actually ended when De Matteo unplugged the gaming systems and sent the stragglers on their way. The kids reluctantly began to move towards the door, leaving class sweaty, smiling, and out of breath.