Feature Article - April 2005
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Catch Those Kids

How to make and market kids’ programming to not only fight fat but rise above a bloated marketplace of leisure choices

By Margaret Ahrweiler


And while pop culture often gets blamed for the rise in childhood obesity, with the explosion of sedentary options like television and video games, pop culture also can be a programmer's friend when it comes to getting kids moving, says Rena Dein, recreation supervisor at the City of Fremont, Calif., Parks & Recreation Department.

Instead of cursing the music of Generation Y, Dein says, use it with a variety of dance programs. From teaching hip-hop and stepping to holding dances-that-don't look-like-dances for preteens, Dein is getting kids moving and grooving. Fremont's dance programs, in particular, demonstrate the sense of wry humor and understanding of age groups that have made the city's rec programs successful. She notes that preteens want to do what older kids do—i.e. dances—but aren't sure about the whole boy/girl issue yet.

Her solution? Wrap a dance into an overall evening of fun and give it a name that lets kids know romance is not necessarily a part of the package: "Valentine Pinks and Love Stinks." The not-a-dance drew 333 middle-schoolers. To keep things moving and keep interest high, Dein scheduled the fun-and-games portion of the evening to start an hour into the evening.

Dein warns that a running successful programs for older kids means continually coming up with new ideas, since rapid shifts in taste are constants in preteen and teen life.

"Where special events programs, overall, should last about seven years, with teens you don't expect them to last more than two years," Dein says.

To keep her programs fresh, Dein spends a lot of time talking to preteens and teens, brainstorming, and tracking pop culture. Another successful Fremont program—a Fear Factor takeoffs—may not be around in a few years, as the TV show's popularity begins to fade.

To bring in the extras that kids want (like DJs and dance instructors) on a tight budget, Dein has tapped into a new volunteer pool—Fremont's older teens. Like many areas, Fremont's high schools require "service learning" hours, where students must show they have contributed community service work in order to graduate.

In the process, Dein says, she realized the Fremont parks department could do a much better job of attracting volunteers by changing the way it was marketing its program. Instead of advertising "volunteer opportunities," Fremont began promoting slots for "service learning" and watched its numbers grow. Along with gaining teachers and DJs for dance program get-togethers, they found students to help with math class tutoring and journaling programs for English. The high-school students appreciate the easy opportunity to fulfill their service learning hours, while the park department gains help, a fresh perspective and potential employees later on, she says.

Service learning hours can help build active youth programs that might otherwise never make it out of the idea box due to a lack of manpower.

"All it takes is a new way of looking at the same things," Dein says. "Sometimes you just have to twist things around."

Teens are willing and able to lend a hand, their presence often adds that vital "cool" cachet to children's programs, and best of all, their presence helps keep a finger on the pulse of those ever important pop culture shifts.

Of course, that quest for cool drives much of children's programming, but a dive into the murky waters of trendiness can challenge the most savvy marketers. The best way to find out what's in and what's out is to ask kids—and then listen to them, Dein says.