- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

COLUMBIA, Conn. - The world of Harry Potter, credited with inspiring millions of children to read, is being used to get students excited about physical education. Justin vanGelder, a first-year gym teacher at Horace W. Porter School, is among those nationwide incorporating the game “quidditch” into their curriculum.

For the uninformed, quidditch is the sport obsessively played in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world of young witches and wizards, as central to their school as football is to Notre Dame.

In the Harry Potter books and movies, quidditch is an airborne game, with players riding broomsticks and using enchanted balls.

Mr. vanGelder teaches a version of the game that can be played by earthbound mortals.

“The kids don’t fly, and we have control of the balls,” he said.

In the book, balls called “bludgers” whip through the game, knocking players called “chasers” off their brooms as they try to score by throwing a big ball — the “quaffle” — through three golden rings. “Keepers,” like soccer goalies, guard the rings, while “seekers” chase after the much coveted “golden snitch.” That is a tiny, speedy winged ball worth 150 points when caught.

In Mr. vanGelder’s class, two hula hoops are propped upright between folded mats on either side of the gymnasium. Determined third-graders with foam bats stand guard as “chasers” charge toward the hoops with foam balls in hand, trying to avoid being tagged out by the “bludgers” — students holding yarn balls — before they can score.

Every few minutes, Mr. vanGelder will throw out his own version of the “golden snitch” — a small, bouncy rubber ball.

Two “seekers” try to grab the ball and earn their team 150 points. When the snitch is not in play, the “seekers” are responsible for freeing any teammates that have been tagged out by the “bludgers.”

“The great thing about the whole Harry Potter aspect is that the kids are so into it,” Mr. vanGelder said. “They pay attention and really want to learn the right way to play the game.”

Mr. vanGelder discovered the game on a Web site, www.pecentral.org, which teachers around the nation visit to swap lesson plans.

Jodi Palmer, a physical education teacher at Windermere Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, posted the game. She said she developed the idea in December 2001 after her son, Cody, began reading “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in third grade and wouldn’t stop talking about the book.

“He especially kept talking about quidditch,” Mrs. Palmer said. “We went to go see the movie together and I remember thinking I could do something with this game.”

Mrs. Palmer suggests teachers tinker with the game. For example, children can be given brooms to use like field hockey sticks to pass the “quaffle” on the ground, she said.

Mr. vanGelder and Mrs. Palmer agree that quidditch works because the students relate to the Harry Potter books and because it teaches three physical education fundamentals: throwing, striking and chasing.

“Later I can start breaking the skills of the game down,” Mr. vanGelder said. “I think it’s really going to end up structuring a lot of the other things I’m going to do. Kids can say, ‘This is just like the Harry Potter game.’”

Mr. vanGelder says he also likes the game because it encourages high levels of participation. All students take turns playing the different positions, and Mr. vanGelder has more than one “quaffle” in play, so that no one student can dominate the game.

“It’s my favorite gym game,” said Jesse Dunnack, 8. “I try hard because the game is fun.”

Gone are the days of dodgeball and kickball when only the strong athletes survived, said Neil F. Williams, professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.

“Things have changed. Gym class should not just be for the top athletes anymore,” Mr. Williams said.

“Something like quidditch works because it takes the focus of a one-ball game off of the students who are weaker,” he said. “It gives every student an opportunity. As long as safety elements are observed, it’s as good as it can get.”

It also meets the nationwide teaching standards developed by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. No student is put on show for other students to watch, all students are kept busy and not every child has to have the same skill levels, said Executive Director Charlene Burgeson.

“Most importantly, this P.E. teacher has taken something that is very near and dear to these kids’ hearts and has adapted it into his class,” Miss Burgeson said.

But 8-year-old Jared Hickey thinks improvements can be made.

Pointing with a frown to the high ceiling of the gym, he said: “I just wish they had strings on the roof to make the brooms fly.”

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