Catch Those Kids
How to make and market kidsí programming to not only fight fat but rise above a bloated marketplace of leisure choices
By Margaret Ahrweiler
When it comes to the state of the American kid, it seems the bad news pops up everywhere: Modern kids are fat, and more kids are getting fatter every year. The phrase "The Obesity Epidemic" now seems an ever popular part of the mainstream media lingo. Concerns over kids growing the wrong way are showing up everywhere from Time magazine (which tagged 2004 the Year of Obesity in one recent column) to trade shows where aisles of vendors promote everything from playground equipment to exercise programs as a way to combat The Obesity Epidemic.
Ironically, children have more activity options than ever before, including the ones you offer at your facility. Why aren't they taking them?
Of course, that explosion of options is one of many culprits behind the flabbification of American youth. Children today are squeezed between the dual vises of less free time and more ways—many of them sedentary—to fill that same time.
While the numbers and the trends can make those who run programs throw up their hands in frustration, hope still beckons. Creative recreation professionals, representing a wide range of facilities, budgets and audiences, are proving that with the right ingredients, they can stir the activity pot to attract kids who need active programs the most. Scratch the surface, however, and these diverse successes share some common denominators:
- Make it easy to attend.
- Make it feed off the pop culture that drives children's lives.
- Make it diverse, with many different activities within one program.
- Make it a learning experience (even if they don't know it).
- Give it time: Kids' programs, like kids themselves require patience.
To succeed, recreation professionals need to recognize what drives the decline in activity in order to overcome it. While everyone agrees that plenty of outdoor and playground time keeps kids active, for one, they must recognize that children may not get to those facilities as easily as they did, say, 20 years ago.
Parents and caregivers no longer allow children to walk to the park by themselves, says Tammy Van Ess, recreation supervisor at the Green Bay, Wis., Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department, or can't get their kids to the park in a two-income household. But Green Bay has made it easy to help parents give their kids a day at the park through its supervised parks program. (Proving that a good idea isn't always a new one, the program is entering its 82nd year.)
At 36—that's right, 36—of Green Bay's city parks, all with playgrounds, specially trained park employees called "Parkees" run activities and provide supervision from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays for kids ages 6 through 16. From mid-June through mid-August, kids may come and go as they please, participate in a few activities—or none at all—and stay all day if they wish. The free walk-up program requires no advance registration and last year posted more than 60,000 visitors over a 10-week period (many of them repeats, obviously, in a city of only 100,000).
"We make it really easy to get kids outside and getting active," Van Ess says. "It's flexible, it doesn't require signing up six months in advance, and kids can do as much or as little as they want with the structured activities."
To make the program even more appealing while keeping kids' health in mind, the parks department worked out a partnership with the Green Bay schools and now serves more than 100 lunches a day during the program, Van Ess says. Parkees noticed many children who received subsidized lunches during the school year were not eating properly during the summer, bringing chips and a soda for lunch or nothing at all. And while no one would compare a school lunch to gourmet cuisine, they generally provide balanced, nutritious meals, she says.
With the Green Bay supervised parks program, incentives to stay outside and play abound, keeping kids active and healthy—without them necessarily noticing. To add a sense of whimsy, every Thursday features a theme: A Day at the Beach, Training Camp Frenzy (coinciding with the start of Packers training camp), Christmas in July, among others, with related costumes, games, and arts and crafts.
To up the amusement ante even further, the program culminates in a parade and then carnival at the end of the season. Each of the 36 parks gets to work on their own float, often revolving around a theme like cartoons. Health and fitness education even gets snuck into programming. In 2003, the Parkees at Bayview Park decided to focus on healthy eating throughout the summer, with a float theme "You Are What You Eat at Bayview Park."
Each park gets to think up and execute its own game booth at the carnival, which also features activities and a raffle. Tickets for games and activities cost a whopping four cents apiece. The parks department works with local businesses to be sponsors as well as donate prizes and materials. Along with creating a good time, the parade and carnival also help children in the supervised playground program work toward a goal, boosting both participation and a sense of accomplishment, Van Ess says.
Other supervised parks program activities include a games day, where children can compete in everything from chess and checkers to sand sculptures and ping-pong. A mega-sports tournament allows each park to field teams for softball, kickball, soccer, volleyball, basketball and cageball. A talent show, "Park Search," showcases the brightest stars from the parks programs.
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.
These kids are a tough sell: Today's children have been the target of marketing their entire lives, says Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates, whose sport and recreation clientele depends on a hip look. These tech-oriented children have been the targets of brand-identity campaigns since birth, and as a result, relate very strongly to them. He counsels clients to build a "brand" for themselves and make it desirable.
What's more, what pleases a 6-year-old will not please a 9-year-old, he adds: Children's programs can't be all things to all kids. For dance or movement classes, for example, 6-year-olds might want a Disneyesque sing-along experience, 7-to-10 year-olds a hip-hop, while teens may have moved onto a more hard-core program like kickboxing. Great differences may even exist between one year, he cautions, such as a 10- or 11-year-old.
Dedicated space for children's programming, divided by age group, makes sense, with the best video equipment a budget allows a must for this television-oriented crowd, Dunkelberger suggests.
"I know it's hard to believe an architect would suggest you need more space, but it does need to be 100-percent devoted to kids to really work well," he says.
And to make these spaces more appealing to this design-conscious crowd, Dunkelberger suggests trolling teen fashion mainstays such as Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch for color and style ideas, along with current music trends. To gain further insight, he also suggests a must-read book, Creating Ever-Cool: A Marketer's Guide to a Kids' Heart by Gene DelVecchio, to find out what drives kids' choices and what makes things—or programs—desirable.
That accursed pop culture, dominated by the entertainment industry, can even aid recreation professionals directly in their quest to get kids moving in an appealing way. Such is the case with Nickelodeon's "Let's Just Play" project. The growth of children's television programming may be a culprit for kids' increased viewing times (if you show it, they will watch), but Nickelodeon—the cable network for kids, which also boasts the highest viewership of any cable station—sponsors a program to encourage plain-old play. Let's Just Play provides a grant program for schools, recreation districts and other facilities to fund play programming. The network plans to award 50 grants from its 2004 applications, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, and is currently taking applications for 2005. Its Web site suggests a number of ways to spend that money, from climbing walls for school gymnasiums to hiring a part-time play supervisor. It also exhorts kids to play games, by featuring indoor and outdoor play ideas and tips, all wrapped in neon-bright Nick packaging.
Let's Just Play also has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the National PTA to promote its ideas and programs and has kicked off a concert-style Let's Just Play national tour, featuring a day of organized Nick-style games.
The program provides a number of suggestions on encouraging play—old-fashioned games and contests that still can attract modern kids. The Nickelodeon brand also helps attract the targeted market, especially younger children.
And while old-fashioned games in the backyard—albeit with a network-branded slime and cartoon twist—may work for some kids, others need more structure, along with a place to get fit, especially in an urban environment.
At the vast Chelsea Piers complex in New York City, a 30-acre sports and entertainment complex on the storied piers of the Hudson River, a new series of kids' fitness programs, just introduced this spring at its Field House, is getting an encouraging response. Fitness Director Peter Kormann's background as an Olympic gymnast and Olympic coach brings a high level of knowledge about kinesiology and coaching, but his passion for getting kids moving runs deeper. His brainchild, the center's Fun Fit and Easy Fit programs are designed to get kids moving and help foster a lifetime love of fitness, along with the knowledge essential for a healthy lifestyle.
The classes mix cardio work, strength training, and fun and games, all with liberal applications of positive reinforcement throughout and a low teacher-to-student ratio. The classes integrate a new type of European exercise machines designed specifically for kids with plenty of interactive features for the video-game set. With a design that looks right out of a Jetsons cartoon, the weight and cardio machines include such bells and whistles as a light that flashes if a child is seated incorrectly. The machines also track repetitions and speed and even talk back with encouragement.
"The kids really like the machines because they turn it into a game," Kormann says. "It also lets them know when they figure something out on their own—it gives them something to be proud of."
Beyond the machines, the programs offer rock climbing, some sport-oriented games and training, and plenty of opportunities to learn to make proper nutrition and exercise part of a typical urban kid's lifestyle.
The classes, which run for 17 or 35 weeks, just kicked off in late January. So far, Kormann has received many positive comments from kids in the program, whom he says have become motivated to making changes in their lives.
"I have one little girl who's become really devoted to this program," he says. "She's really excited and she's told me she's committed to losing 10 pounds. She tells me all the stuff she's doing at home, like taking the stairs whenever she can."
Programs like Fun Fit and Easy Fit can help kids find a niche where they feel successful, Kormann says, especially those who haven't been exposed to the team sports culture that often dominates youth fitness.
"They shouldn't be excluded from fitness just because they didn't learn sports when they were young," he says.
The Chelsea Piers program also bows to the realities of the urban world when helping its charges change their lifestyles. Kormann notes children are instructed to take the stairs only when they feel it's safe, for example. Another by-product of urban living he charted: In the Spinning segments, many children did not initially pedal well, since they had no access to a place to ride a bicycle regularly.
Part of the program's challenge, of course, is reaching the children who need it most, Kormann says. Typically, children of health-club members enjoy a head start over others by having parents motivated and fitness oriented enough to join a health cub. Chelsea Piers is working to reach out to kids in need of a fitness program. One place, in retrospect, that was a good place to reach
this market: television. After a segment on the new Chelsea Piers program ran on a local new station, Kormann says he received a number of phone calls from parents interested in the program. The moral: The sedentary market is tuned in to their TVs. While full-blown advertising may likely bust the budget, rec facilities can jump on the media bandwagon and try to get free publicity for their offerings.
Kormann and Chelsea Piers also are working to offer the program to anyone who needs it by creating scholarships, looking for sponsors and working with after-school clubs.
Beyond the shiny machines, hip design, pop culture references or accessibility to fun, any program targeted to keeping kids healthy and active requires one essential: patience, says Don McPherson, owner of Aerial Gymnastics in Downers Grove, Ill., and a coach of elite and recreational gymnastics programs since 1977. Results don't come overnight, many skills take longer than others, and every child has his or her own specific learning curve.
This investment in time is especially crucial with less-active children who may not have developed the muscle skills of their more-active peers, adds Chelsea Piers' Kormann. Chelsea Piers' program, for example, runs for a minimum of 17 weeks, giving participants the time required to show improvement.
Program directors and instructors also must work with parents—as well as children—to be patient when it comes to results, going against the grain of an instant-gratification society, McPherson says. Some skills don't develop overnight: McPherson says he reminds parents how long it took their toddler children to balance on their feet when it comes to learning how to balance on their hands for a perfect handstand.
Second only to patience in the canon of kids' fitness programs is learning, McPherson adds. Children possess an innate desire to learn new things, so program instructors or moderators must play to that. And if it takes a long time to learn a skill or concept, that means instructors should mix things up, using different ways to teach the same skill.
"Even when you're doing the same thing, you can do the same thing in different ways," he says. "If they're having a hard time one way, you put them on another device or use another method; you have to make them feel like they're being successful."
One of the best skills that coaches can teach kids, he adds, is to show them they're learning for their own, individual selves, not for anyone else, for two reasons: They can't compare themselves to a child with a different learning curve, and they will build pride when they are successful for themselves.
"Especially with girls, the pride factor is completely extreme," McPherson says.
Finally, kids need to be exposed to plenty of different opportunities to succeed and find an activity that fits their interests. McPherson warns against pigeonholing children into one sport or activity too early on, often based on stereotypes or misconceptions of what kids like.
"You can have a big, tall kid in gymnastics, just like you can have a skinny, little kid playing basketball," he says. "Eventually, their body types are going to steer them one way or another, but you can't ever, ever tell them they can't do something. Let them experience as much as they want."
Getting those kids out into the recreation and fitness world to experience things is the goal of marketing all children's programs. In a world full of choices, you need to use marketing smarts and creativity in both programming and execution to make your choices stand out in a crowded marketplace of leisure options for kids.
By following a few key tenets, such as making it easy, making it current, making it filled with learning experiences and making it fun, you can make your program a must for kids of all stripes. Getting them off the couch and into your facility benefits all.
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