Revolutionary high-tech play equipment to engage the 'Playstation generation' has just been launched in a bid to tackle childhood obesity by encouraging exercise that's both challenging and fun.
With one in four children in the UK already overweight or obese1, finding new ways of encouraging children to get fitter has never been so important. The inventors of i.play believe that the fast-paced feedback and constantly changing goals of electronic gaming hold the key to children enjoying challenging physical activity without realising how hard they are working.
In 2004, leading UK play equipment manufacturer Playdale approached Progressive Sports Technologies (Progressive), a spin out company from Loughborough University, with a track record of developing innovative equipment, footwear and apparel for global brands such as Canterbury, Nike and Reebok. The brief, to develop a new piece of equipment to encourage energetic play, quickly evolved into a concept that taps into the enduring popularity of computer gaming.
In a game of up to six children, i.play issues each player or team with a sequence of tasks to test speed, agility, coordination, strength and stamina by running, jumping and twisting to hit the high, low and mid-positioned activity switches. Like a games console, it offers multiple levels of difficulty so players can improve their skill and view statistics to monitor their performance both during and after the game. Children can upload their scores to the online league table at http://www.intelligentplay.co.uk. Although developed for a core 8-14 age group, i.play is also suitable for adults, wheelchair users as well as visually and hearing impaired players.
Progressive used heart rate monitors on both adults and children to test both the prototype equipment and software to make sure i.play enabled children to exercise at appropriate levels of intensity. "Stealth exercise is at the heart of i.play technology," says Professor Mike Caine, Managing Director of Progressive and i.play co-inventor. He continues, "If you make play equipment interesting enough, children will push the boundaries of their abilities in just the same way as they do with computer gaming as they are so focused on improving their score. This distracts children from the discomfort of high intensity exercise, making them more likely to exercise for longer or harder, which in turn maximises the health benefits."
Barry Leahey, director of Playdale agrees: "The leisure industry is aware of how important it is to promote a healthier lifestyle for kids, but finding initiatives that have a real impact on children's behaviour - particularly their exercise levels - is a real challenge. Competitive sport tends to nurture only first team players, which inevitably means some kids feel left out. Next generation equipment like i.play is both competitive and inclusive. It puts the fun back into fitness for a nation of children weaned on TV and videogames."
The research into stealth exercise continues, a wearable oxygen analyser is being used to assess how many calories children are burning on two i.play systems already in use in Leicester and Barrow in Furness. Progressive's design engineer and i.play co-inventor, Phil Hodgkins, has spent the last two years researching and developing the i.play concept as part of a PhD programme undertaken within Loughborough University's Sports Technology Research Group, supervised by Professors Mike Caine and Steve Rothberg, Dean of Engineering. Phil explains that the layout and ergonomics of the activity switches are the key to creating play equipment that is challenging and fun for all abilities: "The placement of activity switches is an important aspect of the design as we want to get users to perform movements requiring a large range of motion to progressively higher levels of physical exertion, yet they need to be easily accessible for most people to ensure the game is as inclusive as possible."
i.play's potential has impressed Walkers, part of PepsiCo, so much that it has installed it as a feature of its 'Parks for Life' initiative. The first of these playgrounds featuring i.play were officially opened earlier this month by Gary Lineker in Reading and Leicester. Neil Campbell, Chief Executive, Walkers Crisps, said, "We have worked closely with Playdale to design a playground that will be relevant to today's young families and become an important space for the community. It was really important for us that we created an area that was both fun and safe whilst encouraging children to be physically active. We've had a really positive response to the playgrounds so far and hope that they will be enjoyed by local families for years to come."
The research team responsible for conceptualising, developing and validating i.play has been delighted with the positive feedback received from children using the product. Professor Caine is full of praise for Playdale who has taken the concept to market, having established manufacturing capability within its Lake District head quarters. He adds, "The fact that Walkers has made i.play a feature of its Parks for Life initiative is testament to the credibility of i.play. All those involved with the project are delighted with the end result and excited to be making a positive impact upon the lives of children across the UK."