GoKids facility at UMass blends research and fun

At first glance, the new GoKids Boston space at UMass-Boston looks like any other fitness facility. It's equipped with all the things one would expect to find in a gym; there's stationary bikes and Nautilus equipment. But set beyond the weights and cardio machines is the Sportwall, a floor-to-ceiling display of flashing yellow lights that allows children to compete in a wide variety of team and one-on-one games involving running and throwing. And around the corner is perhaps the most popular piece of equipment in the facility - Dance Dance Revolution, a popular arcade game in which players mimic dance moves they see played out by cartoon characters on a screen in front of them.

GoKids Boston is first and foremost a research facility, with a broad scope, and rigorous data collection will be done on every child who uses the facility.

"This is a research and training center - every kid that comes here will be researched, we will be able to follow kids over time, it's like a learning lab," said Greer Glazer, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass-Boston.

GoKids is in part the brainchild of Sarah Picard, a 2000 graduate of UMass-Boston who had the idea for such a facility while working as an exercise physiologist at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"We could tell kids that they're clear to exercise, but there was no where that we could refer them," said Picard.

She thought immediately of Kyle McGinnis, a professor of hers at UMass.

The first e-mail about the idea went out in October 2004, Picard recalled, and had humble goals.

"It expanded from a room with a radio to this huge center with state of the art equipment," said Picard.

Just as the center itself has expanded, so too have its possible applications in the community.

For a number of reasons, young people in urban communities are faced with barriers to physical activity not encountered by their peers in the suburbs. Safety concerns might prevent them from playing in their neighborhoods, and many schools offer gym only one day a week, adding another front to the ongoing battle against childhood obesity.

"We want to investigate how we can make kids break barriers to physical activity, and realize that exercise can be fun and choose more physically active ideas," said Picard.

Dance Dance Revolution doesn't look or feel like exercise for the kids, she said. The hope is that they'll seek that same feeling in other outlets.

There's a mental health component to the research as well, Glazer added.

"We think that kids learn better when they're active; we're very interested in the connection between physical activity and learning," she said.

On a Thursday morning last week, kids from Camp Shriver, an inclusive day camp for kids with and without disabilities held at UMass-Boston, poured into GoKids. They broke into teams, with small groups stationed at the Sportwall, Dance Dance Revolution, and other equipment.

Campers were aided by both their counselors, and students from the Dorchester Education Complex who were hired to serve this summer as mentors. They are working under the direction of Martin Kennedy, from the Boston Public Schools.

Just like the GoKids Center, the mentoring program accomplishes many goals in one space.

"My theory about the mentors is that we solve a lot of problems with one project," said Kennedy.

GoKids will offer a summer camp, starting August 6 and running for two weeks. Activities will take place across the campus and also include the daily use of the GoKids facility. Scholarships are available. For more information, visit gokids-boston.org or call 617-287-KIDS.