By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation
Few things are more heartwarming than watching kids at play. But as community parks go neglected, school recess minutes shrink (and P.E. time nearly non-existent) — coupled with all the time techie-type-gadgets command… True playtime has become an endangered animal.
Which is why our recent trip to Ryan Elementary School in Baton Rouge was so eye-opening. The kids there weren’t just standing around during recess, chatting amongst themselves, or with a i-something-or-other… They were playing. Truly playing. Hula Hoops, skip-it ropes, jump ropes, basketballs…
“Look at me, look at me,” a second-grade boy yelled at his teacher, showing off the nearly 100 loops he completed with his weighted Hula Hoop.
“Go, Curtis, Go,” Schoolteacher Tiffany Paillet yelled back, shouting encouragements to keep those little hips swaying.
“When I look around at our playground, I don’t see one kid standing around,” Teacher Jennifer Loisel said. “It’s not usually like that. Only when the Brec Truck is here. They have toys and equipment the kids don’t usually have access to. And it makes a difference.”
A huge difference, says Bridget Rabun, grants administrator for BREC (the public park and recreation program for East Baton Rouge Parish).
“They’re having so much fun with everything, they don’t even know they’re exercising,” Rabun pointed out.
This amazing play opportunity came about through the joint efforts of two Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported programs — Brec on the Geaux (a truck packed with mobile playground equipment) and Fresh Beginnings (supporting healthy curriculum in East Baton Rouge schools). Usually, Brec on the Geaux, launched last summer, travels to parks lacking playground equipment, or to low-income housing complexes, hoping to encourage more playtime. But once school began, Rabun explained, “We were looking for ways to reach kids during the school year. And I was at a meeting with Lyndsi (Lambert) from Fresh Beginnings, where she talked about looking for more options to engage kids in physical activity. And we just looked at each other, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to talk! We can help each other out!’
Now, once a week, Brec on the Geaux rotates between three elementary school playgrounds (Ryan, Buchanan and BR FLAIM), offering a variety of playtime toys to get the kids moving throughout recess. Suddenly, recess is more like an extra P.E. – a huge plus in today’s school environment, where physical education time can be as little as one class a week! That sounds amazing to me, given I went to school a few decades ago, when P.E. class was every single day.
“And the kids know when the truck is supposed to be here,” Loisel told me, noting that last week, when the frigid temps meant recess was cancelled, the kids were upset because it meant missing their turn with the Brec on the Geaux truck. “If their recess could be like this all the time, what a difference that would make. After they play like this, they get all their energy out, and it really makes a difference back in the classroom. They come in ready to learn.”
Still, with all that activity a-buzz on the playground this day, “Coach Trip” (aka Jabar Triplett, a program aid for Brec on the Geaux, responsible for setting up the various play stations), was not at all happy with the day’s set-up. Overnight rains left soggy fields, limiting the play stations to a large black-top only area. Normally, he said, he likes to set up obstacle courses on the grass, relay races, soccer and football challenges.
“Next week,” he said, “it’s volleyball!”
Coach Trip is a great guy. He clearly loves what he’s doing. He couldn’t help telling me about the one kid who really touched him — the little guy who had no idea how to jump rope.
“I said, ‘Buddy, you’re in the fourth grade — you’ve never jumped rope before?’ And he said, ‘No, Coach, I’ve never jumped rope before.”
Other kids frequently come up to him asking if they can take the playground equipment home, to continue their games. He gently tells them no, but is nonetheless touched by their enthusiasm. As were we.
I stood there watching the kids at play, alongside two of our our Challenge Grant partners from Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Allison Tohme and Elizabeth Gollub), and we were struck by how much fun every kid seemed to be having. They wanted to show off. They wanted pictures taken of them in action. They wanted us to look at them go!
If only the gym was this much fun…