Parents join kids in play designed to make both healthier and happier.
Together time for the Doty family often translated to riding the couch.
Life is hectic for the family of five, so it was difficult to find the time and energy to play together. Then, they discovered a new kind of group in their Burnsville neighborhood where families play tag, fly kites, run races and play dodge ball.
Named after a local park, the Paha Sapa Play it Forward group meets twice a month. There are no fees, no sign-ups and no commitments.
Everyone is encouraged to play -- even parents.
"It's an excuse to let everything else go and just play," explained Jen Doty. "Normally it might be 'Let's relax and sit on the couch.' This gets us up and moving together and out of the house."
An assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Medicine and Community Health planted the seed for the play group -- and found $50,000 in grants to keep it going. Jerica Berge studies how family and community resources can prevent and reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity, and the group was an extension of her work.
More than one-third of adults and almost 17 percent of youth were obese in 2009-2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled since 1980.
Berge set up a citizen action group of interested parents living in the neighborhoods surrounding Burnsville's Paha Sapa Park, located on Chicago Avenue. The group brainstormed ways the community could combat the obesity epidemic. They talked about food and exercise, but ultimately decided to create the Play It Forward group.
In creating the play group, parents discussed barriers that keep kids and families from playing together, including time crunches and peer pressure among parents.
"One barrier is parents did not want to commit to another event or thing that had to be scheduled. They didn't feel like they could do more things than they were already doing," Berge said. "Another barrier is, if you are the parent on the block trying to be healthier -- the parent who doesn't bring a snack at the end of the soccer game -- you get the weird looks."
Perhaps the biggest barrier is a culture shift. People don't send their kids out to play as often anymore, Berge said.
"It's definitely a different world," said Doty, 39. "When I was a kid, we would be out catching fireflies, playing red rover and tag. We were out for hours and hours. Now, it's more about play dates. You actually have to call and make an appointment for kids to play together. There is very little spontaneous play that happens in the back yards anymore."
Play It Forward was launched in the fall of 2010. They communicate events via a Facebook page. The citizen action group plans events with a general theme, but if a spontaneous game of soccer breaks out amid kite flying, all the better.
It's mixed-aged, co-ed and year-round. In the winter, they sled, ice skate or play snow soccer. In the summer, it's scavenger hunts and field sports. Community bonfires attract a big crowd year-round.
Anywhere from 20 to 80 people join in. The annual celebration at Echo Park Elementary School in 2011 drew more than 220 people. Organizers set out a sign, "Fun in Progress. Come Play!" to lure in passersby and curious neighborhood kids. It's not all families. Singles and marrieds with no children join in, too.
Berge has gathered and analyzed data about individual health habits and the results are promising, she said. She has submitted those results for publication in an academic journal.
"Within the parents and the kids, we saw changes in lifestyle and behavior," Berge said.
The enthusiasm and level of intensity that parents bring to the play has surprised Berge.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini, who is part of the action group, takes her 11-year-old son and her 13-year-old daughter to events. She and the other parents jump in to play games of kickball and dodgeball and are usually dripping with sweat by the end.
It's a fantastic change from the organized sports format where kids are divided out by age, adult coaches micromanage every move and parents watch, she said.
"We've spent a lot of time driving our kids to sports. Meanwhile, our backsides spread more and more as we're sitting on the sidelines," Morisette Grazzini said. "We see the value of modeling behavior out on the playing fields instead of just being on the sidelines cheering them on."
Everyone has so much fun, they forget they're exercising, Morisette Grazzini said.
"The kids are amazing. They are playing hard and having a blast," she said. "It's subversive healthy behavior."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.