Originally published May 3, 2022 in The Dickinson Press.

By Jackie Jahfetson

On the south side of Dickinson, Heart River Elementary School has installed a novel interactive playground in its gymnasium — the first of its kind within the Dickinson Public Schools system, as well as the first in North Dakota.

Getting this new technology integrated within the DPS system was an opportunity that Heart River couldn’t pass up, P.E. Instructor Jesse Patterson said, especially since it’s such a diverse program.

“We just saw it and (we were) like, ‘Man, that is so cool. How cool would that be to have here?’ And then we talked about the benefits and how we'd use it. The thing that stood out to us the most was that it's a school-wide tool,” Patterson said. “Being in the gym, I have the benefit and blessing of being able to use it every day with every class. But the fact that it's new technology and it's engaging, we talked about how even kids are engaged in so much video games, so we knew that connection would instantly be there… This is something that they're instantly going to like because they're immersed in it, they're involved in it, they get to touch it, they get to throw things at it and things like that.”Now that it’s in full operation for its third week, Patterson said that they are slowly incorporating the new technology into classes.

“So as the P.E. teacher, I'm all about the health of my students. So (this helps) keeping them engaged, which it already works when they're here… So if they're here for six minutes out of their day, they always leave sweaty, exhausted and as a P.E. teacher, that's what you’d like to see,” Patterson noted.

The 3D-motion sensor wall picks up touch and impacts on the wall and is accommodating to each grade level with varying degrees of difficulty. With an emphasis on healthy minds and bodies, the interactive playground is so immersing for students that they sometimes forget how much they’re actually moving, Patterson added.

“It's different than saying, ‘Hey, for our warm ups today, we're going to run three laps.’ Now we can use our warm-up tool on here, they have to run up to it, hit the screen. They're getting in their physical activity that way and… they like not knowing what exercise they're going to get and doing it that way,” he said. “The highest benefit for me as a P.E. teacher is just the overall health of our students and keeping them physically active.”

With the interactive playground, the programming divides different applications into categories suited for each class, Patterson said, adding that the “Target” category incorporates skill exercises such as passing and throwing. Patterson also noted that there is also a section that teachers can go into the program and customize quizzes and games in conjunction to their ongoing syllabus. For example, when Patterson’s fourth graders come in for gym class, he uses the application to reinforce academic elements such as math or science into one of the games, which makes its a "cross-curricular tool."

Heart River Elementary School was first introduced to Lü Interactive Playground last fall when they met with the company who gave them a bottom line price of $27,000. Principal Randy Muffley said they set a goal, but didn’t anticipate that they would meet it in the first academic year. However, a $10,000 grant from the DPS Foundation and funding from a chocolate fundraiser helped reach their funding goal.

“We were amazed by February that we had the funding in place because we honestly thought it’d be a little longer term goal to reach out and achieve. So the fact that we had it installed in our school in April is pretty cool,” Muffley said.

The closest school system with this technology in place is located is located about four hours away in Wyoming. Across the United States, interactive playgrounds can be found in more than 900 school systems, Muffley said, adding that it’s a worldwide company.

“It's such a great tool for students and it's just another way to add to our P.E. program. So as schools see it, I hope they have a desire to want to work towards it like we did because it's really awesome for the kids,” Muffley said.

Heart River students are proud to have been part of this process, Muffley said, adding “that’s a lot of chocolate they sold.”

“We feel really humbled that our parents and our Dickinson Public Schools Foundation saw that vision and supported us and to achieve the financial part of it so quickly is really just a statement to this community in terms of people wanting to support us and support what we're doing and supporting that vision,” he said. “We're honored to have it.”

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