Ask kids what they like best about school and they'll most likely grin and say "gym and recess." So students at Jacksonville Elementary are loving school this month because gym class looks a lot like recess.
The gym is filled with playground-type equipment that students use for 50 minutes twice a week. There are a few safety rules, but kids are basically free to climb on, up, through, under or over a maze of structures.
"Go A.J. Go A.J.," chanted a group of fifth-graders asA.J. Burnetttried the Tire Traverse. His goal — to cross the gym without touching the floor while swinging on three tires hung by ropes from the ceiling.
Wearing gloves to protect his palms, A.J. jumped off a platform onto one tire, then grabbed another when he was at the top of his swing and moved onto it. He then successfully latched on a third tire before swinging to the landing zone's floor mats.
"It wasn't that hard," he said as he handed the gloves to the next in line. But nobody in line behind him managed to get to the end.
Fifth-grader Cecily Feliz found out the hard way that gloves are a good idea.
"My palms are literally a different color. Look. They're red," she said after coming back from the bathroom where she ran cold water over them.
Physical education teacher Karla Lee said the students' palms will toughen up after a few sessions.
Ropes are essential to climbing Monster Mountain, where kids grab onto a thick rope and hoist themselves over a 7-foot-tall padded A-frame.
Grunting with exertion, fifth-grader Chase Riley made it up and over before heading over to Spider Web. Physical education teacher Jennie Springer said the kids climb up a rope net until they reach one of two rubber spiders. Their reward is squeezing the spider until it squeaks.
A different March madness
"We call this March Madness and we do it every year for a month," Lee said. "It's the kids' favorite and it's a great workout. Each piece of equipment works on different muscles. This is only our second day and a lot of kids told me they were sore this morning."
The configuration of beams, ropes, climbing walls and ladders will change each week. In the first week of the popular rope swing, kids jump off a platform holding onto the rope. They can either let go of the rope at the top of their swing and land on their feet or swing back and land on the platform.
In future weeks, they will be asked to land in the middle of a tire placed on the floor or pick a bowling pin off the floor as they swing by.
A bowed ladder that connects two A-frames will be turned upside down so it becomes an arch.
The hardest piece of equipment for the students to master is a simple rope. Kids try their luck at climbing to a black line painted 18 feet off the ground.
Fifth-graders Shannon Musolf and Kyle Trammell showed off their strength by making it to the top. Shannon is a former gymnast and Kyle is currently on a gymnastic team at Rebounders.
Lee said about 15 of the school's 90 fifth-graders will make it to the top in a month.
At least one kindergartner is determined to be the first, and maybe only in his class, to reach great heights. Chris Makawy, 6, inched up the rope every chance he got.
"Yesterday I could only go up a little way, but today I could go higher 'cause I got more muscles," he said as he pulled up his sleeve and flexed a thin arm. On his second day, Chris was able to get 10 feet off the ground.
But most kindergartners were more timid. When Megan Puente finished traversing between two A-frames on her hands and knees, she flapped her hands and gasped, "That was hard!"
Molly McGarvey said she was scared the first time she crept along thin metal bars. "But I can do it fast today. It's not hard. It's fun," she said.
All Baltimore County elementary schools may borrow pieces of jungle-gym equipment for a month from the county school system.
Jacksonville owns its own.
Lee said the PTA agreed to buy several pieces of climbing equipment when the school opened in 1994. Since then, the PTA has added a new piece each year.
Jacksonville's equipment now comes from Gerstung International, in Baltimore, a sport education facility that promotes founder Siegfried Gerstung's learning-through-movement philosophy. The equipment is manufactured by Gerstung Gym-Thing Inc.
"Its official name is (Gerstung) Movement Education equipment," Lee said. "The kids don't care what it's called. They just know they love being on it."