Computer games can now be used to effectively encourage fitness in schools. PE & Sport examines how the popular Nintendo Wii and PSX Dance Mats can be used to build up stamina, muscle tone and coordination

Beneath Christmas trees across the country and around the world, Nintendo Wiis were wrapped and ready for action. And for once no one could complain about children and young people being couch potatoes as living rooms were transformed into sporting arenas.

Arguably one of the biggest crazes of the year, the Wii has turned the traditional computer game into physical activity. And at the Whitminster Centre – part of the Cotswold and Stroud Pupil Referral Service, it is being used to address the issue of children and young people who have little or no interest in taking part in physical activity.

Last year, as part of its work with the National Healthy Schools Programme, the centre began introducing Nintendo Wiis and PSX Dance Mats for use during break times and lunch hours. The aim was to provide opportunities that would encourage young people’s participation and get them active but at the same time offer something that they would enjoy.

Paul Barns, PE specialist at the Whitminster Centre, explained: “Many of the young people we deal with are ‘school phobic’ while others have been excluded from mainstream schools for behavioural issues. Our aim was to get every child and young person doing at least two hours of physical activity a week during school hours but because they attend our centre on a part-time basis and at different points throughout the week, timetabling issues meant that it was difficult for us to organise conventional group sports activities. We also wanted to keep them engaged during lunch breaks so that they wouldn’t hang around in the nearby town centre.”

The centre conducted research by asking the pupils what they liked to do in their spare time and found that on average they spent 13.5 hours a week on computer games – a fairly sedentary activity. When they asked them what activities they could introduce there was massive enthusiasm for the introduction of Nintendo Wiis and PSX dance mats. Staff at the centre decided to look at sports-related games such as Tiger Woods Golf, Winter Olympic Games, Tennis, Football and Boxing. And each one proved a massive hit.

Now, every break time, the Nintendo Wii and dance mat games are projected against a whiteboard allowing for a 60 inch screen, much bigger than a standard television. The centre allows the children to decide for themselves if and when they choose to use these facilities and finds that, on average, three to four people are actively playing at any given time.

Paul Barns said: “Our young people tell us that they find these activities highly motivating and enjoyable because they don’t ‘feel’ like they are exercising. They are also easy to participate in for the short 15 minute slots during break time, as well as for longer organised sessions.”

One of the students who attends the centre, 15-year-old Tanika, told PE&ST: “When I first started playing I was rubbish but my friends and I started practicing more and more and now we can easily beat the boys at tennis. These games have really made our breaktimes fun.”

A ‘Winners’ scoreboard’ is used to encourage good behaviour and create a competitive edge and greater social interaction. Because a lot of pupils have been excluded for behavioural problems, the centre tries not to enforce discipline through punishment, instead operating a system of withdrawing game privileges, which has been very effective in drawing out the best from students.
Paul said: “The games we have chosen to use require a considerable amount of physical exertion, are easy to continue to pursue beyond school hours and also seem to inspire success. From a professional point of view, I think that although the young people aren’t running around, in some ways the games are more intense because they require concentrated muscle exercise.”

Commenting on the introduction of the Wii, Dan, another 15-year-old at the centre, said: “I love the boxing game, my arms are getting stronger and I’m feeling much fitter. I think the Wii is far more active than just playing on a normal console.”

Paul Barns is particularly proud of one young man who continually refused to do any PE lessons. He was quite large for his age and suffers with very low stamina but he decided to try out a boxing game on the Wii. Very soon he was playing on a regular basis for up to 20 minutes a day. His personal fitness levels and stamina have vastly improved, as well as his personal confidence, which are all important as he is looking to join the Fire Service next year.

Paul said: “This kind of achievement is fantastic and confirms the benefits of this approach to physical activity for those who would not traditionally participate.”

The other great aspect is that the scheme is very cost effective. Paul continued: “Often in pupil referral units we find that because it is difficult to engage the young people in sporting activities, we have to organise motivational sports trips such as watersports or trips to dry slopes. However, this can require a great deal of fundraising effort in order to be sustainable as they can’t keep asking parents to fund sports trips. However, this initiative is sustainable while at the same time producing visible and encouraging results.

“We’ve also had a significant amount of interest from other schools and sports associations since we began trialling this last year. The Stroud School Sports Partnership, for example, has been looking at the idea and is now considering how they can introduce this concept into a much wider range of schools.”

Overall, the computer-based approach to increasing participation in physical activity seems to be highly effective. Paul Barns concluded: “It’s not only hugely popular and improving fitness levels with our young people but it’s also proving a big hit with our staff too who often have to be kicked off by our pupils!

“Ultimately, the measure of success for me is that this is genuinely helping these young people to be more aware of and more motivated about their own health and fitness.”