Peals of laughter and wide grins were everywhere Sunday at Aksarben Village as thousands of children breathlessly bounced from one activity to another.
The YMCA's annual Healthy Kids Day was held in conjunction with the first of four citywide Play Streets events, in which an area of streets is temporarily closed to give kids a place to play. The City of Omaha and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska are co-sponsoring the initiative.
The combined effort filled Stinson Park from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with activities such as rock climbing, bounce houses, foot races, bike safety training, Zumba lessons and lots of health-conscious giveaways.
Mayor Jim Suttle briefly took the stage to announce that the city also has scheduled Play Streets for May 26 in South Omaha, July 27 downtown and Aug. 25 in north Omaha. The mayor said Omaha is one of only 10 cities in the country to receive grant funding for the Play Streets initiative.
Trevor and Jacki Henery of Omaha said the event was something “out of the ordinary” for their three children, ages 14, 10 and 7. The Henerys watched as the children jumped in and out of a game of four square, an old game that left many observers trying to recall when they'd last seen it played.
“With our 14-year-old, I'm always looking for ways to get him out and away from the computer,” Jacki Henery said. “But once we get him out here and there are so many things going on, he has a great time. Look at him, he's really enjoying this. It's getting him going that takes effort.”
Dr. Cristina Fernandez, who is affiliated with Children's Hospital & Medical Center, said part of her job is to get children running, jumping, laughing and playing games. Fernandez works with the hospital's program that addresses childhood obesity.
“Events like this are so important, because every single day we see children who are so obese they require medications for adult diseases like hypertension,” Fernandez said. “They tell us they feel so alone and how they feel so sick because they are overweight. It just breaks your heart.”
The hospital's HEROES program — Healthy Eating with Resources, Options and Everyday Strategies — receives about 700 referrals a year from doctors whose young patients are grossly overweight, she said. Sometimes the children even require weight-reduction surgery.
Fernandez and other volunteers from Children's distributed pedometers so the kids could track their walking. Children also received information about diet and outdoor games. Suggested activities — such as bike riding, hula hoop contests, hopscotch, Frisbee toss and kite flying —were from pre-video game days.
“One of the easiest things we tell kids when they are watching TV is to stand up every 20 minutes and go downstairs to help fold the laundry or help with something,” Fernandez said. “You wouldn't believe how many of these kids don't even do any chores. We have to get them moving and away from sitting on the couch.”
Brian and Kim Hanusek of Bennington look for any opportunity to get their girls, ages 8 and 5, outside to play. Kim Hanusek said the event gave her some ideas for keeping the girls busy this summer. The outdoor version of the online game Angry Birds was so popular, it needed two staging areas.
In the game, the kids used a rubber ball and a giant slingshot to try to hit a stack of milk crates. The kids earned a prize — oversize sunglasses or a bottle of soap bubbles, for example — whether they blasted the milk crates or missed the mark completely.
“We could do something like that at home without a lot of trouble,” Kim Hanusek said admiringly. “There are some good ideas out here today that we might use to keep the kids busy.”
The Hanusek children and their friends were already getting a lot of mileage out of the free pedometers. Their parents challenged them to run around and see who could accumulate the most steps.
“That should tire them out,” Brian Hanusek said with a smile.
James Hurst II and his wife, Marie, brought their 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to the festivities. Marie Hurst said her kids “love activity and getting outdoors.”
Both kids like riding bikes, and the girl, Brooklynn, is into gymnastics and track. James III is already involved in wrestling.
“There's so much for them to do here today,” said the children's father. “I mean, we just got started, and there are a lot of things to cover. We've got a long way to go.”
One of the event's organizers, Angie Frederick of the YMCA, estimated 5,000 people attended Healthy Kids Day and Play Street.
Children's Hospital & Medical Center handed out 450 bicycle helmets. Giveaways included 1,000 gift bags holding water bottles, T-shirts and healthy snacks.
“Everything's going great, and we couldn't have asked for better weather,” Frederick said. “This is supposed to be a good kickoff for summer and to remind people that exercise doesn't have to be work, it can be a lot of fun.”
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