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Students of Fitness : Camp Offers Youths a Non-Competitive Learning Environment

<i> Gray is a Van Nuys free-lance writer</i>

Eric Wade is less than five feet tall, yet he’s preparing for a place as point guard on an NBA basketball team. That may not be impossible. Eric is 10 years old.

Each of the past four summers, he has spent a month of mornings at Cal State Northridge’s Summer Youth Fitness and Sports Camp, a 25-year-old nonprofit, program for 7- to 12-year-old boys and girls.

The camp isn’t designed to turn youngsters into superstars but to provide a noncompetitive learning environment, said William J. Vincent, director of the camp and a CSUN faculty member. Every day, the children rotate through four classes on the campus: swimming, which ranges from basic instruction for non-swimmers to diving and water safety; gymnastics; games, such as shuffleboard, jump rope, handball and kick ball; and other sports, including volleyball, basketball and soccer. Badminton, tennis and golf are taught the older children.

Staffed by CSUN’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education faculty and community teachers, the camp is committed to teaching those with perceptual motor problems or medical disabilities as well as those who already excel in sports, Vincent said. Students are recruited through flyers and brochures sent to local schools.

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The staff focuses on the “total person concept: helping the students learn cooperation and social skills and building self-esteem and self-image,” Vincent said. As soon as children start doing well on the playground--having the motor coordination, strength and skill to play typical games and sports--they feel more self-confident and make friends more easily, he said.

Brian Cratty, program director of the Center for the Improvement of Physical Coordination in West Los Angeles and professor of kinesiology at UCLA, said there are three types of self-esteem in children: social, intellectual and physical ability.

Skill on Playground

He said studies show that by increasing a child’s physical ability, his intellectual self-esteem can rise too. Gifted children and those with learning disabilities are often what he terms awkward, and the tack to take is to do what you can to help them improve their coordination and skill on the playground, he said.

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The CSUN program provides basic assessment as well as coordination and skill training, Vincent said. It offers posture analysis with a written evaluation to parents, a screening system for such divergences as scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine), knock knee (when the child stands with the knees together and the ankles do not meet) and bowlegs.

The camp also administers a national fitness test that checks for cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, overall endurance and body fat percentage. The results are computer-generated and recorded, and returning students can compare their past records each year. Both tests are valuable because they are not usually offered in public or private schools, Vincent said.

Most students who attend the camp are from nearby because there is no transportation available through the program. At least 50% of the 200 students have attended in previous years, Vincent said.

Council Survey

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According to Denise Austin, a consultant to the President’s Council on Physical Education and Sports, a council survey showed that “90% of all children ages 6 to 12 fail the presidential sports tests. And 90% can’t do one chin-up. Only one-sixth of all boys who take the test can do 40 sit-ups in one minute, and a study in ‘The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal’ estimated that 15% to 25% of U.S. schoolchildren are obese.”

Austin said the decrease in physical ability has taken place just since 1974, when more rigorous physical education routines were still budgeted in most of the nation’s schools.

Dr. James G. Garrick, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, said, “The fitness levels of children and adolescents have been declining for over two decades.”

The decreased availability of education dollars makes changing physical education programs in the schools an unrealistic goal, Garrick said. He favors “an enhancement of extra-scholastic youth sports programs and increased education and pressure from parents and the medical profession.”

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As for participants in the CSUN program, Merrill Hardy, professor of physical education at CSUN and the swimming teacher at the Youth Fitness and Sports Camp, said they are a fairly homogeneous group, but “a lot of parents have their kids in the program because they are less fit, less coordinated than others.”

Hardy does not think that the decrease in children’s fitness levels would come as a surprise to anyone. Television, videotapes and games have turned them into couch potatoes, and physical education has become increasingly a part-time elective at most junior and senior high schools, he said.

Develop Basic Skills

The key in extracurricular programs, such as CSUN’s, is to develop basic movement skills in children so they can succeed and truly enjoy athletics and sports, beginning at as early an age as possible, Hardy said. “Kids who don’t move successfully don’t tend to exercise,” he said. The CSUN camp started, in fact, as a demonstration school for elementary school education, an attempt to show CSUN students and the community an ideal approach to teaching fitness.

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Hardy suggests that “parents look for programs that offer these kinds of opportunities for kids, such as the Department of Parks and Recreation programs--at local parks--and the YMCA.”

Vincent warns against signing children up for such sports as T-Ball and soccer too quickly. Not only may parents be limiting the range of choices a child may make regarding his favorite activities, but the competitive, organized sports tend to attract the cream of the crop. Youngsters with motor weakness or the need for skill training may be left on the bench, he said.

Hardy recommends that parents limit television to a specific hour of the day, and that they suggest or require 30 minutes a day of physical activity. “Parents are short-changing their kids if they don’t help them find one to two things they will really enjoy doing athletically, to have the opportunity to succeed,” he said.

“Seeing their parents enjoying an activity does more than anything to get kids interested in fitness,” he said.

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The camp costs $260 for a one-month session of half-day classes held five mornings a week. There is one teacher for every 12 children at the session, which is in July. For information about next year’s enrollment, call (818) 885-2661.


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