Forget the hoppity hop, parachute and volleyball. In the world of physical education, rock climbing is at the summit of favorite student activities.
"You don't know where to put your hands or feet sometimes," said Jennifer Charney, a fourth-grader at John F. Kennedy School in Milford, Connecticut. "And you really need to pull yourself up with your arms."
Second-grader Nick Deveny compared it to climbing trees, a favorite pastime. "It wasn't hard," he said. "I climb trees, anything. It's nice to have one for gym class."
Climbing walls, also called traversing walls, have become popular fixtures in some regional school systems, offering students an alternative to regular workouts that challenges their problem-solving abilities as much as their physical strength.
At some schools, the walls reach as high as 20 feet, raising insurance-liability issues that require districts to indemnify themselves and retain trained supervisors to monitor students.
Kennedy School, in Milford, is the city's fourth elementary school in three years to install a climbing wall in its gym. All have come through parent group fund-raisers.
Other districts, like Fairfield and Stratford, have had them in some buildings for up to 10 years.
The climbing wall at Kennedy School officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony September 9. Like those in the rest of Milford, it is 8 feet high and 28 feet across. Students don't climb more than 3 feet off a rubber mat surface extending 6 feet out from the wall.
The concept involves a person supporting his or her own weight while climbing on hand and footholds that can be adjusted for different degrees of challenge.
"My son, Nick, saw a TV show on rock climbing, and I thought it would be nice if the school had one. I knew some other schools had them," said Terry Deveny, Kennedy School PTO co-president. "I approached our principal. He visited other schools and talked to the central office. We created a fund-raising committee and raised $6,000 in three months last winter."
Patrick Simon, Milford K-12 physical education coordinator, has been involved in the selection and installation of the walls at Harborside and West Shore middle schools as well as Live Oaks, Orchard Hills, Mathewson and Kennedy elementary schools.
"I explained to parents groups at these schools that kids go no higher than the back of your couch. That makes them feel better," said Simon. He also teaches at Live Oaks School, which built the district's first traverse wall through a $2,000 fund-raiser three years ago.
"At Live Oaks and other schools you work your way across from each end and try to get around others to get to the other side. It's a real challenge," Simon said of the K-5 programs.
"The rule is if you fall, don't fall in a clump. Fall on your feet or else you sit a minute," he said. "I haven't heard of any injuries."
He said installing a climbing wall is the choice of each elementary school PTA. Since a wall is not in every elementary school, it is not part of the physical education curriculum and therefore not part of the school budget.
The two middle schools, West Shore and Harborside, had their walls paid for with school funds.
Simon said that with a climbing wall in the middle school gyms, two classes can be conducted in the same room, one on the wall and one on the floor for an activity like basketball. Each is considered a teaching station.