Active Gaming Battles Obesity, Boosts Learning

USF experts showcase active gaming research benefits for children to Obama’s fitness director.



By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 22, 2010) – Video games at school? In P.E.? In the classroom?

While every fifth grader’s dream, it sounds somewhat suspect to the average parent.

Not at all, according to researchers in the University of South Florida’s College of Education.

Experts in physical education and exercise science, they have been studying the use of the latest genre of video games in schools. Called active gaming, these games combine video game technologies with physical activity and include rhythmic dance games, balance board simulators, virtual bikes and virtual sport simulators.

As part of their ongoing research, Stephen Sanders, professor and director of the School of Physical Education and Exercise Science, and Lisa Hansen, assistant professor, recently have concluded two studies involving local elementary school children. In one investigation, they determined that active gaming keeps students engaged in exercise in physical education classes for longer periods of time. Another study shows that active gaming increases learning, as well as improves behavior, in the academic classroom.

USF is a leader in active gaming research, opening the nation’s first active gaming research lab for children in 2007 on its Tampa campus followed by a second lab at nearby Belle Witter Elementary School. The physical education study was conducted at Belle Witter, and the academic classroom study took place at the USF Patel Partnership School on the Tampa campus.

Last week, the College of Education showcased this work for the nation’s top physical fitness director, Shellie Pfohl, including a demonstration at the Belle Witter lab.

Executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, Pfohl was the keynote speaker at the USF College of Education’s 14th Annual Education in Action Luncheon fundraiser. At the event, she called childhood obesity “one of the greatest physical, social and economic challenges America faces in the 21st century,” impacting the nation’s ability to compete in global economy.

Emphasizing the connection between physical activity and academic achievement, Pfohl said, “The phenomenal work USF is doing in active gaming – to show that physical activity, learning and fun can work together – is model research.”

Active Gaming Extends Exercising

The Belle Witter study investigating students’ active gaming experiences in physical education class is a prime example. It shows that active gaming is a powerful tool because, “It meets children where they are,” said Hansen. “They want to do it.”  

During the study, students participated in active gaming in physical education classes for 30 minutes, twice weekly over eight weeks, and investigators collected qualitative data from the 16 sessions.

“Our data shows that students have a ‘persistence to game,’ when participating in active gaming during physical education That means they voluntarily engage and remain engaged in technology-driven physical activities. They made a distinct connection between the video games and exercise suggesting the video games made physical activity more enjoyable.”

Lynda Correia, physical education teacher at the elementary school agrees. “The excitement and motivational levels with active gaming are tremendous. It reaches all students, including those who might gang back more in P.E. class. They, too, get caught up in the enthusiasm, and those are the very kids we’re trying hardest to reach.”

While a powerful resource, active gaming remains a complement to traditional physical education content, said Hansen. “Traditional skill development and fitness activities should be the main focus of a P.E. classroom. At the same time, these discoveries suggest active gaming can be an appropriate tool used in 21st century physical education classes that appeals and is desirable to students.”

Active Gaming in the Classroom

The second study – conducted by Hansen and doctoral student Tom Watterson –placed active gaming technology in six 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classrooms at the USF Patel Partnership School to explore students’ experiences using active gaming in an academic setting.

“The results were fantastic,” said Hansen.

Using the active game, Footgaming, with a classroom computer, students played one of three online nutrition games from the Playnormous website.

The study showed a significant increase in student test scores on the nutrition content after playing the online games – 17.87 percent to 23.87 percent by grade level and 16.53 percent overall.

Qualitative data from the study indicated that not only did the students enjoy learning while being active, but they believed that active gaming refreshed them for seat work. Teachers said that the active gaming helped students with behavior challenges refocus for learning and all students to learn the nutrition concepts.

“Learning through playing active video games is certainly a concept that is new, yet one that the children seem to truly enjoy and desire,” said Hansen. “We know from recent brain research that active kids are healthier kids. It only makes sense to integrate ‘P.E.’ concepts into the academic classroom.”

  Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.