Class adds sensory equipment
In a small gym room in Van Hoesen Hall this week, 22 physical education majors wrapped up their semester of working closely with 3- and 4-year-old children from the adjacent SUNY Cortland Childcare Center on basic movement skills by hosting a very special carnival.
The 13 tots were led through a variety of carnival stations, spending 50 minutes jumping, hopscotching, tossing balls overhand and underhand and other physical activities designed by students to teach 16 different fundamental movement skills.
The SUNY Cortland students in the preschool PE class taught by Helena Baert, associate professor of physical education, laid out the carnival activities using Fit and Fun Playscape vinyl rollout mats and stickers aimed at helping youngsters improve their physical dexterity.
“Those playscapes make a good job of incorporating academic knowledge with knowledge that the preschoolers have to obtain just about movement, because the young kids, they love to move,” Baert said. “They just love to play on the mats, to be creative and do different things on the mats.”
The slightly adhesive and reusable vinyl products are made by a small business based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that creates school supplies to aid physical and mental development.
“It’s different activities every time,” said Maria Wishart, a childcare center caregiver, who spoke over the rambunctious din of her tiny charges and their student/teachers in the busy activity room. “It challenges them, they engage in it, and they have so much fun.”
Both the pre-kindergarten children and physical education majors in Baert’s classes are benefitting from approximately $3,000 worth of equipment that Baert brought to campus from the Nov. 20-23 New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NYSAHPERD) conference in Verona, N.Y. Some she acquired through a $1,000 NYSAHPERD Foundation grant and the rest she was allowed by the manufacturer to keep after demonstrating the equipment at the conference. The mats cost about $200 to $300 apiece and a sticker sets can cost even more. She’s holding some of the new items, a series of garden-themed stickers, for next semester.
The play equipment pieces are carefully applied to a clean floor, protected with a wax coating and left in place to be used through a whole semester, Baert noted. If well cared for, they can be removed and reused over and over.
Baert said she began to adopt the equipment after years of coming up with her own creative ways to mark space to cue the young children in their fledgling natural movements.
Tim Davis, an associate professor of physical education at SUNY Cortland, had used a set of the equipment last year to design sensory pathways for Cortland’s Racker Center, where physical education students get field experience helping teach motor skills to children with special needs.
“The preschoolers cannot walk all the way to Park Center or the Student Life Center,” Baert said. “We were trying to find a space where the children could walk from the Childcare Center.”
This semester, Baert’s classroom relocated into a new, wooden-floored multipurpose gym space closer to where the tots are cared for. Remodeled by campus Facilities Planning, Design and Construction, Room 27 A Van Hoesen had been vacated by SUNY Cortland Emergency Medical Services.
“It isn’t only for the preschoolers, it’s also the space where we teach and instruct our college students,” Baert said. “They sit on three benches and use clipboards. We very much use active learning, not sitting and listening to a lecture.”
Anthony Degraffe, a physical education major from Bay Shore, N.Y., stood opposite a series of youngsters whom he had worked with all semester, on a Copy Cat mat, modeling physical moves their developing bodies could achieve.
“After (the child) completed the copy-cat mat with me, I’ve realized that the mat does a very good job at getting the children to understand their colors while also being able to be active,” Degraffe said of the capstone experience, which gives class members 10 of the needed 100 hours of observation or student teaching experience.
“(She) went from just knowing her favorite color to being able to mirror me when I said the color as well as watching me,” Degraffe said.
Adrian Marzullo ’25, a junior physical education major from Syracuse, N.Y., watched a steady stream of youngsters try out an activity on a mat covered with different colored shapes.
“I would say that really all the mats are all about the engagement that it brings to the (preschool) students,” he said. “When they see the mats, their eyes are instantly drawn to them, wanting to go run and jump all over them. These are great ways to help bring the imagination out of the kids and keep their energy high.”
“Our students have worked all semester to build the relationships so they can get to this point where the children are comfortable to go with the teacher to every station and comfortable enough to learn from that teacher,” Baert said.
On Jan. 19, both physical education students and professors will demonstrate the new uses of the play equipment when SUNY Cortland hosts the South-Central Zone AHPERD conference at SUNY Cortland.
“Fit and Fun Playscapes will be sponsoring the conference and will bring additional mats to showcase,” Baert said. “They will also come the day before to visit the gym so we can share what we have done and get some feedback.”
Some mats are being shrunk in design to fit the bodies of preschool children, based on Baert’s suggestion.
“The session will discuss how to include ‘mild,’ ‘medium’ and ‘spicy’ tasks to provide a variety of challenges with different difficulty levels for all kids that are developmentally appropriate so that every child can learn,” she said, applying common terms to working with young children.