Hitting the Wall

Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA and the Carl Sanders YMCA at Buckhead
Atlanta, Ga.

Gold's Gym
Lorton, Va.

By Kyle Ryan

Getting kids active never has been more challenging. Pastimes that keep kids sedentary seem to grow more numerous by the day, but ones that get them moving can't seem to keep up the pace.

Adding to the problem is that kids today are accustomed to lots of stimulation, the kind that can make throwing a ball through a hoop seem boring. (Throwing a ball through a hoop on a PlayStation video game is another story, though.) Kristin McEwen, executive director for the Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA in Atlanta, discovered that firsthand.

"There are a lot of youths who aren't interested in sports that we traditionally offer, like basketball," McEwen says. "Youth sports are great, but that's not for all the kids. We have to figure out a way to get those other children excited about being active."

So this past summer, her YMCA, along with the nearby Carl Sanders YMCA at Buckhead, tried something new: interactive activity walls by Sportwall International Inc. in Carpinteria, Calif. Designed to imbue the allure of video games into physical activity, the walls use lights, sounds and shapes to get kids playing.

"We're really focusing on ways to get youth more involved in physical activity," McEwen says. "And this was a great new look at how to get children excited about being physically active."

How? By making fitness a by-product of play. If it's not fun, it's going to be a tough sell to kids, especially if something looks difficult. But the environment created by the Sportwall installations is designed to resemble what being inside a computer game might look and sound like. Combined with the interactive games, the system helps the kids have a good time and make them too busy to notice much else.

The Dunwoody YMCA tried the ScoobieBall system, a large, brightly colored, enclosed pen of sorts with 18 colored targets, a scoreboard, time clock and speakers (with CD-quality sound). Inside, kids play one of four different games: Lights Out, Chase the Target, Play Tunes or Find the Hidden Object. They earn points by throwing a ball at the lighted targets, earning more points the faster and more accurate the shots are.

The Sanders YMCA tried the SmartBall system, which uses up to four 4-foot-by-8-foot panels mounted alongside each other. Each panel has a scoreboard and seven electronic targets. Above all the panels is a master controller and time clock, which runs the 30 different games that can be played on the SmartBall panels. Because these tend to be set up in open areas (gyms, courts, etc.), kids play in teams to earn the highest score possible.

After training the staff (ScoobieBall requires very little training, and SmartBall's orientation takes about two hours), the YMCAs debuted the systems at their summer camps. Both programs went over incredibly well, McEwen says.

"We had parents taking their children down there and having competitions with them," McEwen says. "We had a staff competition—we would come out of there wringing wet."

Because the Ys were trying the walls on a demo basis, they were removed after the trial period ended. McEwen says they're already thinking about how to generate the money to bring them back permanently; she's looking at potential grants that go to youth activity programs in particular.

"The kids just have such a great time," she says. "We're going to figure out a way to bring them back."

At the Gold's Gym in Lorton, Va., both ScoobieBall and SmartBall are part of the facility's Kids Zone. Since they were installed in late July, the walls have led to a jump in Kids Zone usage of about 30 percent, according to Kids Zone Director Terri Shaffer.

"The members are all focused on fitness, and they love for their kids to be able to come in and do something more physical and active," Shaffer says.

Because the systems take up a lot of space (ScoobieBall itself measures up to 12 feet by 12 feet by 10 feet at its largest), Gold's Gym has only been able to use it at the Lorton location, a large gym with high ceilings. But, Shaffer says, their size also means a number of children can use them at once, especially with relay races and other contests.

"We have balls and beanbags, and we have it taped off so we can do relay races with the kids and contests and stuff," she says.

Sportwall also makes two sports-specific walls that are similar in nature: Sports-PC for Tennis and Sports-PC for All Sports. Users engage in similar games but with their tennis rackets, basketballs or baseballs to develop agility in their sports.

The kids at the Atlanta area YMCAs and Gold's Gym in Lorton don't really care about all that, though.

"It's in the part of the evening when you have kids who have been in school all day long and have a lot of energy to burn off," Shaffer says. "The parents love it—their kids are leaving exhausted and sweating and worn out."

That, health officials will tell you, is better than having a child with a sore thumb from spending too much time on the PlayStation.


Sportwall International Inc.: 805-745-5559 or www.sportwall.com

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