The power of play: How DREAM is using technology to enhance playtime in East Harlem

by | Jan 29, 2021 | 0 comments

At DREAM, health and wellness are critical pillars of our Grow the Whole Child model. So when COVID hit New York City last spring, it was paramount for our team to find creative ways to promote physical activity among our student body.

Director of Athletics, Health, and Wellness Kip O’Rourke-Brown and Senior Manager Rob Saltares teamed up with DREAM Grants Coordinator Allie Somers to pursue funding for a project they’d been researching for close to a year: Using technology to track and analyze students’ heart rates during recess in an effort to improve their activity and give them ownership of their health. The result was a $10,000 East Harlem Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative grant, funded by the New York State Health Foundation in collaboration with Mount Sinai and the Fund for Public Health. 

“We had been discussing what the best key indicator for health and wellness at DREAM would be, and determined it was heart rate,” Kip explained. “We wanted to understand what movement in-session looks like on the road to meeting our goal of 60 minutes of daily, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.”

Based on his research, Kip sought out Interactive Health Technologies (IHT), which specializes in health tracking technologies for K-12 schools. Through IHT, DREAM secured more than 50 heart rate monitors, which are worn by students during recess at DREAM’s East Harlem Elementary School. (Kip noted that families had the chance to opt-out of the program, but none did.)

As the students play, the monitors blink, changing colors as each child’s activity increases. At the end of recess, the children log their metrics by tapping their monitors onto a IHT data pack. From there, Kip can see how long it took each student to reach an active heart rate and how long they stayed in the zone. While each student’s information is private, and the data is shared only with a small group of DREAM staff, Kip noted the insights are already driving new ways of looking at playtime.

“We wanted to play up the future of athletics, which is using technology to improve health.”

Allie Somers, Grants Coordinator

“By analyzing how their recess session went, I can start a dialogue with the session coaches on how much activity the children received, what activities got their heart rates up,” he said. “For example, if one day they miss cool down due to time, how do we rework our sessions to get them back to a place where they are ready to focus when they return to the classroom?”

The overarching goal of the East Harlem Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative was to fund projects that encouraged the East Harlem community to be more active. Other grant winners included the Association to Benefit Children, Cada Paso, Harlem Grown, Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Services, and New York Road Runners. While these organizations used their funding to pursue valuable projects like community walks and nutrition classes, Allie said DREAM’s use of technology was unique.

“We included data collection, which went above and beyond what was expected for the grant,” she added. “We wanted to play up the future of athletics, which is using technology to improve health.”

The initial grant only covers one year of the initiative, but Kip said his team has gained so much knowledge from the pilot program—like the resources needed and implementation best practices—that he sees the potential to expand the project to DREAM’s other schools, or pursue more data-driven Athletics, Health, and Wellness projects in the future.

“This would allow us to really have our finger on the pulse, pun not intended, of what’s going on in all of our physical activity offerings, and really see if we are achieving this heady goal of getting kids to move around for 60 minutes every day,” he said. “It’s important because it gives us really clear insights into achieving that goal and sets the foundation for connecting that to our Grow the Whole Child model.”

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DREAM started in 1991 as Harlem RBI, a volunteer-run Little League for 75 kids in East Harlem. Three decades later, the organization serves 2,500 youth across East Harlem and the South Bronx through a growing network of inclusive, extended-day, extended-year charter schools and community sports-based youth development programs. By developing an education model that is responsive to the unique academic and social needs of every child, DREAM is creating a future where all children are equipped to fulfill their vision of success.

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