Play’s the thing

It’s 9:30 on a Saturday morning at the Madison Park Community Center gym in Roxbury. A 3-year-old boy steadies a ball, then kicks it into a mini soccer net.

“You’re a pro—you’re too good,” a Northeastern student volunteer tells him. “Try something harder.” The child grabs a Hula-Hoop and swings it up and over his arm.

Given the unbridled enthusiasm of the nearly three dozen children, ages 3 to 8, running around the gym, you’d think they’d just been given an endless summer vacation. In a way, maybe they have.

The kids kicking soccer balls, shooting hoops with Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster, and jumping rope are taking part in a weekly event called Open Gym, a free play program for children and their families, run by trained Northeastern students.

Open Gym is sponsored by Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, a pilot program that aims to educate preschoolers’ parents and caregivers about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. The initiative—a partnership among Northeastern, the Boston Red Sox and Children’s Hospital Boston—serves children enrolled in Head Start programs in the Lower Roxbury, Mission Hill, Fenway and South End communities.

Two-hour Open Gym sessions will be held at the Madison Park Community Center every Saturday until August 15. “Open Gym is a fun time for children to be creative and active with their parents in a supportive, safe environment,” says program manager Tara Agrawal, who notes that the activities strengthen bonds between children and their caregivers.
Not only does the program help families carve out time to spend together, it also instills healthy lifestyle habits.
A recent study found that nearly 20 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States are obese. That’s because Americans are less active than in years past, says Shari Nethersole, medical director for community health at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The hope for Open Gym, she says, is that it will “promote an engaging family life,” and create “self-sustaining activities” that continue outside the gym.

For 3-year-old Janarie Simmons and her mom, Trippetta, the play program is a much-needed change. “It’s a way to get out of the house, and out of the fridge, and it gets Janarie away from the TV,” says Trippetta.
As her mom watches, Janarie scoops up a plastic ball and rolls it toward one of her peers, who rolls it back. “All smiles here,” Trippetta says, beaming.

Her little girl began her morning shooting a small basketball from inside a Hula-Hoop. “It’s more than just exercise,” Trippetta notes. “It’s coordination.”

But all Janarie seems to care about is having fun. “There are so many balls flying, she can go anywhere and she’s not going to get bored,” her mom says. “And I don’t have to worry here. I can be at peace.”

Jordan Thomas, a Northeastern exercise-physiology grad student and an Open Gym coordinator who recruits student volunteers and reaches out to families, voices the underlying sentiment of the morning: “This is an awesome opportunity for caregivers and their children. There’s not anything really like it happening now.”