For 11-year-old Ethan Payne, the best part of day camp is getting to “move and groove.”
This is exactly what Gainesville Parks and Recreation organizers like Recreation Program Coordinator Laura Demby like to hear. The city-run day camp, which includes about 75 kids age six to 12, is designed to teach kids wellness by making it fun. It also teaches swimming skills — especially important since more than half of the children began camp without knowing how to swim.
Kids at the camp spend well over half their time engaging in physical activity, and much of that takes place in the pool, thanks to a United Way grant that is providing the lessons for the first time this year.
Demby said she became concerned for kids’ safety around water when she conducted a swim test and found many of the children did not know how to swim. Even more concerning, most thought they could swim just fine.
“A lot of them think that as long as they can stand up, they’ll be fine. ... It just seemed like a great opportunity to teach them,” Demby said. “It’s really awesome to watch them change. Kids who were scared to get in the water can now get in, and they all at least know how to float. ... It’s been really cool to see them adapt.”
She said the majority of children could not swim 20 yards at the beginning of the summer, and many could not swim 5 yards, but all of them have made progress thanks to the lessons, which come at no additional charge.
Demby said this is especially welcome in light of recent local drownings.
“I really believe that some of these kids will probably have their lives saved because of swim lessons,” she said.
In addition to swimming, the camp is focused on two other life-saving habits: physical activity and healthy eating.
“They know that they’re playing games,” Demby said, “but they’re not like, ‘Oh, this is me being active.’”
Kids do everything from Zumba to relay races, and have fun doing it. After a morning spent playing games outside, kids were enthusiastic about how much they loved all the running, jumping, and best of all, falling down.
Nine-year-old Jarrious Harris said he loved the tug of war.
“You get to pull, and then if your team doesn’t win, you get to fall down when the people pull you,” he said, adding, “Camp is awesome.”
Olivia Agnew, 6« said her favorite activity also involved falling down: dizzy bats.
“When we did the spinning with the bats, you get to walk around funny and spin around,” she said.
Eight-year-old Demontae Young said he loved the three-legged-race for the same reasons — because he got to be silly and fall down.
The camp is designed to teach kids to enjoy physical fitness by including activities where they dance, run around, and just have fun. Kids also play traditional sports like soccer and basketball, and the variety of activities means there’s something for everyone.
Demby said the camp also tries to help the kids have fun with healthy eating by making the process of learning interactive. Recently, they took a trip to Jaemor Farms in Alto, where they picked blackberries and got to bring them home.
“We did a survey to see how many of them had eaten a blackberry or seen a blackberry before, and and lot of them had not,” Demby said. “We’re showing them healthy options, challenging them to bring one thing (for lunch) that’s healthier than what they brought before.”
The result: Many kids who start the week with a soft drink and a snack cake in the lunchbox end it with water and an apple instead.
“Their attitudes are completely changed,” Demby said.
While the camp is organized around the specific lessons of swimming, being active and eating healthy foods, kids are also learning lessons about themselves and each other.
When asked what he’s learned at camp, Jarrious said “that I was tough.”
Ethan said one of the best things about camp is meeting kids he wouldn’t have met otherwise. “You get to meet new people,” he said, “and I guess it’s fun to meet new people instead of just seeing your normal friends everyday.”
Even if they aren’t thinking about it, kids are also learning about leading active lives. When asked if camp was better than TV and video games, Ethan answered enthusiastically in the affirmative, but did have one caveat: “Except it’s World Cup season.”