The world of Harry Potter, credited with inspiring millions of children to read, is now being used to get students excited about physical education.
Justin vanGelder, a first-year gym teacher at Horace W. Porter School, is among those throughout the country incorporating the game "quidditch" into their curriculum.
For the uninformed, quidditch is the sport obsessively played in J. K. Rowling's imaginary world of young witches and wizards, as central to their school as football is to Notre Dame.
In the Harry Potter books and movies, quidditch is an airborne game, with players riding broomsticks and using enchanted balls.
VanGelder teaches a version of the game that can be played by earthbound mortals, otherwise known as muggles.
"The kids don't fly and we have control of the balls," he said.
In the book, balls called "bludgers" whip through the game, knocking players called "chasers" off their brooms as they try to score by throwing a big ball -- the "quaffle" -- through three golden rings. "Keepers," like soccer goalies, guard the rings, while "seekers" chase after the much-coveted "golden snitch." That's a tiny, speedy winged ball worth 150 points when caught.
In vanGelder's class, two Hula-Hoops are propped upright between folded mats on either side of the gymnasium. Determined third-graders with foam bats stand guard as "chasers" charge toward the hoops with foam balls in hand, trying to avoid being tagged out by the "bludgers" -- students holding yarn balls -- before they can score.
Every few minutes, vanGelder will throw out his own version of the "golden snitch" -- a small bouncy rubber ball.
Two "seekers" try to grab the ball and earn their team 150 points. When the snitch is not in play, the "seekers" are responsible for freeing any teammates that have been tagged out by the "bludgers."
"The great thing about the whole Harry Potter aspect is that the kids are so into it," vanGelder said. "They pay attention and really want to learn the right way to play the game."
VanGelder discovered the game on a Web site, www.pecentral.org, where teachers nationwide go to swap lesson plans.
Jodi Palmer, a physical education teacher at Windermere Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, posted the game. She said she developed the idea in December 2001 after her son, Cody, began reading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in third grade and wouldn't stop talking about the book.
"He especially kept talking about quidditch," she said. "We went to see the movie together and I remember thinking I could do something with this game."
Palmer suggests that teachers tinker with the game. For example, youngsters can be given brooms to use like field hockey sticks to pass the "quaffle" on the ground, she said.
VanGelder and Palmer agree that quidditch works not only because the students relate to the Harry Potter books, but also because it teaches three physical education fundamentals: throwing, striking and chasing.
"Later, I can start breaking the skills of the game down," vanGelder said. "I think it's really going to end up structuring a lot of the other things I'm going to do. Kids can say, 'This is just like the Harry Potter game.' "
VanGelder says he also likes the game because it encourages high levels of participation. All students take turns playing the different positions, and vanGelder has more than one "quaffle" in play, so that no one student can dominate the game.
"It's my favorite gym game," said Jesse Dunnack, 8. "I try hard because the game is fun."
Gone are the days of dodge ball and kickball, when only the strong athletes survived, said Neil F. Williams, professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.
"Things have changed. Gym class should not just be for the top athletes anymore," he said.
"Something like quidditch works because it takes the focus of a one-ball game off of the students who are weaker," Williams said.
"It gives every student an opportunity. As long as safety elements are observed, it's as good as it can get."
It also meets the nationwide teaching standards developed by the National Assn. for Sport and Physical Education. No student is purposely put on show for other students to watch, all students are kept busy, and children can have different skill levels, said Charlene Burgeson, executive director.
"This P.E. teacher has taken something that is very near and dear to these kids' hearts and has adapted it into his class," Burgeson said.
But 8-year-old Jared Hickey thinks that improvements can be made.
Pointing with a frown to the high ceiling of the gym, he said: "I just wish they had strings on the roof to make the brooms fly."