Helping students step in the right direction

June 01, 2016
AK Story 3Dan Pemble’s physical education students at Baxter Elementary School run, jump and squeal with laughter. As music plays, they do exercises that are written on small sheets of paper and randomly drawn from a cart set up at one end of the room.

Every move these kids make is being recorded. Each time an arm shakes or a stride is taken, the devices they wear on their wrists scores the movement and earns them points that turn everyday play into friendly competition. It’s a program designed to encourage healthy habits among Alaska’s kids.

“We are careful not to call these trackers,” says Providence Regional Director Micaela Jones of the Sqord Active Play Program devices that are being distributed to schoolchildren in Anchorage, Seward and Kodiak. “It’s the kids’ version of a Fitbit, and it scores their movement, it doesn’t track it. What we find is that the more points the kids earn, the more they want to move.”

Sqord program encourages kids play together

According to the state, 31 percent of Alaska’s high school aged children are overweight or obese. Providence hopes using the Sqords will help reduce that statistic. The program is made possible by Providence’s $320,000 community investment in 2015, and is supported by partnerships with Healthy Futures, Alaska’s Department of Obesity Prevention and Control, and school districts in Anchorage, Kodiak and the Kenai Peninsula. Researchers at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research also are involved, conducting a long-term study to examine how Sqord increases physical activity. The goal is not only to increase physical activity in children, but also to encourage kids who want to be more active.

At the beginning, Jones says, she had boxes of Sqords and nowhere to start. So, naturally, she looked to her own children.

“I decided, ‘I’m going to strap them on my kids and see what they think,’” she says, “and what happened very quickly is that they actually wanted to play together. They were getting points for all their movement and it became a game.”

10,000 kids are playing with Sqord

From there, the project quickly blossomed. The program grew from a handful of schools to about 65 Anchorage schools today. There are four more schools in Kodiak and one in Seward participating as well. In total, more than 10,000 kids are using Sqord.

The Sqord works like a mobile video game – part Wii gaming system, part exercise tracker and part motivator. Each user has an identification number and avatar – their online persona that they create at the click of a button. When they start playing, the device automatically records their movements, accumulating 3.5 points per step. Users also collect “sqoins,” a form of pretend money that kids can use to buy virtual accessories for their avatars. Each school is assigned its own community, so users from one school can compare their activity to another school.

Helping create healthy habits to last a lifetime

At Baxter, sixth-grader Keiara Alexander, age 11, darts around the room balancing a plastic ball on a paddle as part of the class lesson on racquet sports.

“I think of the Sqord as a way to keep you healthy,” she says. “It keeps you honest. My parents like that I have it because they know it makes me want to do more. I’m in cheerleading, dance and soccer, so I always have lots of points.”

Pemble says providing the Sqords has been simple for him because Jones is managing the maintenance, support and upkeep of the devices. As a busy P.E. teacher at two Anchorage schools, he knows he wouldn’t have time otherwise. All he and his students have to do is wear them, and download activity at their leisure or on portable devices set up throughout the schools for those who do not own computers at home.

“We knew that these teachers already do so much, it absolutely couldn’t happen if they had to do one more thing,” Jones says. “We couldn’t ask them to take over.”

Perhaps the best part of the program, Jones says, is the university’s long-term study to see if the Sqords really make a difference. After all, that is the ultimate goal: to reduce childhood obesity and create healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

“This is bringing technology and movement in the same conversation, and that’s a step in the right direction,” she says.