Scooter Town program keeps kids on the move

October 24, 2012 10:19:54 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Gas prices dropped to 95-cents per gallon this week in Scooter Town, where apparently, everyone is partying like it's 1999. As expected, lines are long, and some traffic citations have been issued near the service station, but police are taking a laissez-faire approach to the hullabaloo, letting motorists off the hook with a warning.  


Of course, it probably helps that none of the drivers were born the last time gas was this cheap, and their missing teeth, skinned knees and pigtails really ratchet up the cute factor.  


If Scooter Town sounds like a driver's fantasy, that's because it is. Amy Martin, physical education teacher at Cook Elementary, dreamed up the fictional town 15 years ago, starting with little more than some tape on the gymnasium floor, demarcating a one-lane road.  


Now, it encompasses the entire gym, requiring 11 hours of set-up and more than a little imagination. Some of the items, like the four-wheeled scooters, Roller Racer police cars and orange traffic cones, were purchased by the school, but the majority of the items, like the miniature gas pump, come out of Martin's own wallet.  


Students can navigate the course at their own pace, sitting on the floor-level scooters and using their feet to propel themselves or lying on their stomachs, using their hands and feet to push themselves through the "Bat Cave" (made of black paper, cardboard boxes and Halloween supplies) or the car wash tunnel (constructed with broken hula hoops and clear, plastic sheeting).  


Beneath the whimsy, Martin is fighting a serious issue: Mississippi leads the nation in childhood obesity, and physical education teachers must rely on every tool in their arsenal to foster a love for exercise.  


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2009-2010, 14.9 percent of children two to five years old were overweight and 13.7 percent were obese. Among high-schoolers, 16.5 percent were overweight and 18.3 percent were obese. Among adults 18 and over, 67.9 percent were overweight, and 34 percent were obese.  


Martin has been an educator for nearly three decades, and she's seen the physical changes wrought by a shift from outside play to more sedate, indoor pastimes. Children accustomed to air-conditioning complain the gym is too hot. And though Scooter Town is self-paced and mostly non-competitive, some children struggle with the physical exertion required to push themselves from start to finish.  


Still, the activity is a big hit with her classes every year, Martin said, and she tries to change the routes and add new things to keep it fresh.  


She's not surprised with the popularity. She saw a similar thing at a pre-kindergarten class in California when she was a child, and she was so enthused, she never forgot it.  


"I played it, and I remember how much fun I had," she said Tuesday as she sat at a child-sized table, waiting for her next class to arrive. "I thought, 'This is the coolest thing.'" 


But the secret to fighting childhood obesity may lie outside the classroom. Cook students are with Martin for 40 minutes, once a week. They have another class devoted to movement and dance once a week. There is recess, but students have the choice to be active -- or not.  


Parents can do much to incorporate physical activity, and a love for it, into their children's lives. It doesn't have to be complicated, Martin said. Most children just want to be with their parents, and they enjoy the extra attention. 


"Just spend time with them," Martin said. "Walk down to the Riverwalk. Throw a ball with them rather than watching TV. There's no happier sound than the sound of children laughing and playing." 


So what does the future hold for Scooter Town? Urban sprawl will continue, predicts Martin. New businesses will arrive. Infrastructure will become more intricate. But the 95-cent gasoline is here to stay.  


What else would you expect in a fantastical, inflation-proof town?

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.