July 1, 2008

Summer Shape-Up: Miami Children’s Museum Keeps Kids in Training

By Howard Cohen, The Miami Herald

Jul. 1--Christian Michael Tellez, 7, thinks "king of the mountain," but the 40-foot rock-climbing wall at the Miami Children's Museum responds "yo-yo." For every step up he takes, he slips back a notch or two.

Christian's one-step-up, two-steps down underscores the challenge of keeping kids fit, especially in the summer months when PE class isn't an option, an unstructured day means more lazing and snacking and afternoon rains curtail outside activity.

"It's not as easy to get them outside as when we were kids," says Patty Molina, a mother of three.

The Pinecrest mom brought five children from her play group -- including her three, Niki, 8, Katerina, 5 1/2 and Alec, 2 1/2 -- to the children's museum's new exhibit, a takeoff on the upcoming Summer Olympics in China. Called MiChiMu's Summer Games, the exhibit incorporates rock climbing, gymnastics, long jumps and triathlon events to engage families in physical activity. In short, it brings fitness to the family room.

"This should be easy to replicate [at home]," says Jillian Shanebrook, who brought daughter Madeleine, 4, and son Jackson, 1, from her Coral Springs home on a recent rainy afternoon.

Keeping kids fit can be a challenge over the summer, when routines slacken and healthy eating gives way to chips, ice cream and hot dogs. An Indiana University study of 5,380 kindergartners and first-graders published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that students' body mass index grew at a faster rate -- on average 0.448 BMI units compared with 0.176 -- during the summer months than the rest of the year. In general, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines call for 30 minutes of exercise daily for toddlers, two hours for pre-schoolers and an hour for school-age children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends playing as a means to develop creativity and "cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being in children."

"With kids, we want to keep them active . . . and want more interactive stuff, rather than just role playing, especially with some of the older kids," says Michael Neufeld, museum director of exhibits.

The triathlon station, for example, incorporates biking, running and swimming -- and it's not a cinch. Utilizing a bench with light beam sensors and video footage to mimic swim strokes, children lie on the bench, arms extended forward, and must paddle 80 strokes to activate the first light sensor. From there, they move to biking, then the treadmill to complete the event.

In Leap Across America, modeled after the long jump, kids step on a six-foot-long board imprinted with a map of the United States. They jump west from the starting point -- Florida. One inch equals 39 miles. From Miami to the farthest part of the country it's 2,800 miles, Neufeld notes. Especially strong legs will propel kids from Miami into the Pacific. After a jump, the map lights up to showcase the states they soared over.

"I try to throw in a little bit of education in there," Neufeld says.

Reach for the Gold approximates the Olympic high jump. In the early 1900s the event was done without a bar. The museum has gone for a retro look and eliminated the bar.

"We don't want anyone to get hurt at our version of the Olympics," quips Neufeld.

Niki Molina, the 8-year-old girl who came with the Pinecrest play group, loves gymnastics. She heads straight to the play area marked Fantastic Gymnastic, complete with beams, mats and rings.

"It's fun and it's cool," Niki says. Her fave? "I would say the bars."

Meanwhile, Christian, the intrepid mountain climber, tries to move up that mountain in the museum's hallway. His father, Christian, watches with his daughter, Amanda, 10, at his side. He says it's a challenge "keeping them busy and finding enough activities to exercise their minds and bodies" during the summer break but well worth the effort.

Patty Molina, Niki's mom, wholeheartedly agrees: "The more they run around, the longer they nap."


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