MARION — Joe Fontenot is losing the game.
The physical education teacher at Francis Marion Intermediate School is trying to demonstrate the J-Mat, a video game system in which players control an on-screen version of Jackie Chan by running and jumping in place on a thin plastic mat on the floor.
He’s also explaining how the game works as he plays it, and his divided attention is causing Chan to stumble into road signs as he runs through Hong Kong.
Fifth-grader DeEtta Perry, 10, can watch from the sidelines for only so long.
“I bet I can play that better than you,” she says to her teacher, who steps aside to let her try.
The J-Mat is part of the school’s interactive fitness room, which houses a variety of video games that promote health and fitness.
Getting the room was a long-term goal for Fontenot, who estimates only about five other schools in Iowa have a similar facility. He believes the interactive elements engage kids who otherwise tune out during PE, a growing problem for child health.
“I saw what was going on — 30 percent of our district students are overweight or obese, according to body mass index,” he said. “Athletes will run around the gym as many times as you want them to, but what about the kids who aren’t as motivated?”
He started out small, scrounging televisions and video game systems from garage sales and putting them out during gym class for kids to use. When the district found itself the recipient of grants from the Carol M. White Physical Education Program and PE4Life, Fontenot suddenly had the funding to be more ambitious.
About four months ago, he was able to secure the dedicated space he wanted, and the interactive room was born.
The converted classroom is filled with televisions hooked to Nintendo Wii consoles, Dance Dance Revolution pads, “game” exercise bikes and other video game systems, all of which require a physical element.
Through pantomiming dance moves and sporting maneuvers, kids boost their heart rates, which they can check on several monitors Fontenot keeps in the room.
Two larger fixtures take up an entire wall in the room — a miniature rock-climbing wall and an LED light-filled “training wall.”
The rock-climbing wall may not be as tall as those found at large gyms, but it’s the perfect size for the fourth- and fifth-graders at Marion Intermediate, who use long Styrofoam tubes to create obstacles and tunnels to navigate through.
The light wall requires more mental than physical exertion. It flashes patterns of colored lights that students touch according to a pre-set challenge, such as “only touch the blue lights” or “touch all except the red lights.” It’s a particularly valuable exercise for the school’s special-education students, who have the room to themselves in the morning for an adaptive gym class.
Denise Holmes, a special-education teacher, said the room is a sensory experience as much as a physical one.
“It’s a great start to the kids’ day,” she said. “It has a calming effect, making their brain cells ready to learn.”
It can be a challenge to make sure students playing in the room are focused on fitness and using the equipment the way it is intended. Fontenot watches his charges to make sure they’re sticking to the physically active games and not literally sitting down on the job. He encourages students to rotate between games to get a variety of exercise.
The room has had an enthusiastic reception from students, such as fifth-grader Christopher Flatt, 11.“I’ve never played video games in school before,” he said.