By Cristobal Martinez of Neighborhood Sports Chicago
This summer, the open space at 31st Street and Lawndale Avenue in Little Village has been overtaken by families. They gather on Tuesday nights as part of Project Play, a creation of the non-profit Beyond the Ball. At Project Play, kids, moms and dads are able to enjoy traditional sports like basketball and soccer, as well as recreational activities such as face-painting, tag, and jumping rope. Beyond the Ball created Project Play to help families exercise together outdoors, instead of allowing gang violence to intimidate them into staying inside.
Although creating a safe haven in the neighborhood is an important part of Project Play, Beyond the Ball is also trying to help whole families adopt a healthy, active lifestyle. Amy Castaneda, a teacher at Ortiz Elementary School and co-founder of Beyond the Ball, explains, “We didn’t want to have a day camp, where parents drop off their kids and return to pick them up. We want the parents to join in on the fun!”
“Project Play allows the families to be active one evening a week; we hope this program will promote healthy activity for the rest of their lives.” says Mike Torres, a Project Play volunteer who credits his active lifestyle to his childhood experiences. “I grew up on the playground. Games like tag and kick the can opened the door for me to participate in organized sports like basketball and flag football.”
Enabling parents and their children become active separates Project Play from just being a program that keeps the kids off the streets. It offers new ideas to families on how to live healthier lives. Little Village resident Lucy Rivas loves the way Project Play is promoting healthy habits for her and the three kids she brings each week. “Simple games like ‘Switch’ and ‘Four Square’ can be easily set up at home or for birthday parties to keep my kids active and away from the couch.”
A few weeks into Project Play, Siri Atma Greeley, MD, PhD, measured each child’s Body Mass Index (BMI). The purpose of the BMI screening was to give parents an objective way to assess the health of their child. “The goal is to have the kids participate in group exercise when they come to Project Play, and we hope the activity will help them lose some weight and stay in shape.” Explaining how Project Play will help families develop healthier lifestyles, he added, “One way to achieve that goal is having families come out every Tuesday to see how much fun they can have; then when they are at home they can spend more time engaging in physical activity as well.”
After the BMI screening a handout was provided to the families that gave helpful suggestions on nutrition as well as activities they could do on their own. Dr. Greeley hopes the future will include more activities for the adults. “Moving forward Project Play would probably offer nutritional and health classes for the parents.” He adds, “We will also screen the parents to make them aware of their own health. We also want to make them aware of the danger of diabetes, which is common in this community, so we could test their blood sugar and even their blood pressure.”
Armed with activities learned at Project Play, BMI data, and nutrition information, the groundwork has been laid for Little Village residents to lead healthier lives. Lucy Rivas agrees, “Exercise is the best thing you can do for your body, so it’s great that this program helps us learn new ways to stay in shape and have fun at the same time!”