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La Cañada Elementary students go gaga for GaGa ball, thanks to new campus addition

There’s a new game in town at La Cañada Elementary School, and so far students have been going “gaga” over the recent addition since they first spied the presence of its playing field on the first day of school.

A blue plastic octagonal pit, about shoulder high to most elementary school students, is the official arena of play for GaGa ball — a form of dodgeball that seems, in its execution, more egalitarian and less likely to cause injury than the American standard.

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Principal Emily Blaney said students had been asking for a pit for years, but it wasn’t until last year’s sixth-grade families and the families of incoming sixth-graders agreed to fund the effort that bringing GaGa ball to campus became a reality.

“The kids see it when they go on their sixth-grade Pali Mountain field trip and, here at LCE, they see it during their time capsule field trip,” Blaney said in an email. “Kids have been asking for [a pit] ever since I started.”

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Pali Mountain is a company that offers a variety of adventures in the San Bernardino Mountains. One of the operators under the firm’s umbrella is Pali Institute, which runs the outdoor education program the La Cañada students participate in during their trip.

A recent visit to the La Cañada Elementary campus found physical education teacher Dale Freyberger introducing the rules of the game to several classes of students. Kids swarmed around the sides of the pit, clamorous for a chance to play.

Some basics: Players must hit the ball with their open hands only, and one time only. Any player touched by the ball in a below-the-waist shot is out. If someone causes the ball to go outside the pit, that person is out. Once someone hits the ball, it has to touch another player or the wall before he or she can touch it a second time.

The teacher beckoned about 20 students inside, and they each waited to begin with one hand on the wall of the pit, as regulations dictate. A ball was dropped into the arena as players waited for three bounces to initiate play, yelling in time with the bounces, “Ga,” “Ga” — “GO!”

“Go means the game has started, the ball is live — it’s in action and you can play,” Freyberger instructed.

Sixth-grader Naomi Hosford, 11, jumps high in P.E. class to avoid being hit by the ball in a new GaGa ball pit at La Cañada Elementary School.
Sixth-grader Naomi Hosford, 11, jumps high in P.E. class to avoid being hit by the ball in a new GaGa ball pit at La Cañada Elementary School. (Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)
Students surround a GaGa ball pit while two competitors duel for dominance at La Cañada Elementary School on Aug. 21.
Students surround a GaGa ball pit while two competitors duel for dominance at La Cañada Elementary School on Aug. 21. (Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

Among the tumult of players running, jumping and taking swats at the ball as crowds of students outside the octagon yelled encouragement and shouted tips, students tagged out began to leave the octagon. Fourth-grader Max Durfee was the first to go out, while classmate Jacqueline McArthur was the last player standing.

Outside the octagon, McArthur signed an invisible autograph on her friend’s outstretched palm.

“When he explained the rules it didn’t make sense, but then when you played it made sense,” she said of the sport.

GaGa ball’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Some say it’s an old Israeli game, while others credit a Maryland camp counselor named Steven Steinberg for creating it in 1975.

Whatever the truth, the game has largely been a staple regulated to camps — until now.

“I was excited to watch it,” said LCE fourth-grader Danny Brenner. “I was out in like the first fraction of a second, because I went right for the ball and was too close to it. I had a great time.”

10:17 a.m. Aug. 31: This article was updated to include mention of Pali Institute.

This article was originally published at 2:05 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29.

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