Three Eldridge Park students perform a DrumFit routine during an assembly at the school March 30, 2017. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

Halfway through this school year, Eldridge Park School phys ed teacher Ryan Matheson was looking for something to pep up his gym classes. All he needed, it turns out, was some exercise balls, buckets and plastic sticks.

With help from a Lawrence Township Education Foundation grant, Matheson established and purchased the equipment for DrumFit, a cardio workout program that combines exercise with music performance.

Matheson was paging through an equipment catalogue when he came across the “drums.” In each setup, a bright green, medium-sized exercise ball sits on top of the open end of a rope-handled bucket—just the right height for a kid. Each student is also given a pair of cylindrical plastic sticks.

Matheson has been teaching at EPS for the last six years, so he’s had the current first, second and third graders since they were in Kindergarten. He knows their personalities and what they like and dislike, he said, so he knew right away they would gravitate toward DrumFit.

“All of a sudden, the wheels started spinning,” he said. “I thought, ‘How can I use this for our kids?’ But when you start pricing stuff out, and when you start doubling and tripling, I thought, ‘How about writing a grant?’”

So Matheson wrote a grant for 30 balls, buckets and pairs of sticks—totaling about $1,300. Everything arrived at EPS in February. His students, ranging from Kindergarten to third grade, immediately took notice. Matheson said it was “like Christmas” when the kids walked in the gym and saw the equipment for the first time. Their eyes lit up and jaws dropped right away, he said.

“Any time they walk in and see new equipment out, they all start whispering to each other,” Matheson said. “They saw the ball, and the sticks were inside the bucket. You tell them they’re going to drum, and they get so excited.”

Matheson teamed up with Debbie Lingel, the music teacher at EPS, to craft routines, create rhythms and pick out songs to drum along with. Lingel already teaches rudimentary percussion with rhythm sticks in her music classes, so Matheson thought DrumFit might be a good next step.

There was a lot of trial and error. Lingel said they found some routines online—DrumFit classes for adults are often held at gyms, as well as in schools—that they adapted to be kid-friendly. An effective DrumFit song, she said, has a strong, clear beat that is easy for students follow. Still, though, there should be some variety. She and Matheson like routines that use different parts of the “drum,” like the top and sides of the ball, the bucket or even the floor. This allows the kids to move more freely and use different muscles.

The students quickly picked up routines with the standard four count but started to struggle when Lingel and Matheson switched it up. With practice, though, they were eventually able to pick up and follow along with more complicated rhythms.

“Some of the activities we initially tried were difficult for the students to follow,” Lingel said. “For example, the original routine we tried for ‘The Can Can’ was too complicated, which made it difficult for the students to stay together and to keep a steady beat. As a result, we adapted the activities and tried different approaches so that the kids could perform the routines more successfully.”

Matheson kept his ears open for songs that might work for the kids—“Footloose” was one that came to mind. Steady beats make it easier for students to work with different patterns, speeds and dynamics as taught by Matheson and Lingel. Kids worked both individually and with partners. They even used the exercise balls for warm-up activities.

The class ran for a two-week unit, culminating in a performance by second grade students in April. All told, Matheson said 250 students got to experience the class.

“When the kids get into the same thing, repetitive, you bring something different in,” Matheson said. “Going past the gym, every kid always peeks in the window. When they started seeing this, they were like, ‘This is awesome.’ It’s a workout. They hop around, and they’re working on other fine motor skills, coordination, rhythm. It touches on so many different aspects all within a 45-minute class.”

Matheson and Lingel took turns teaching the classes. The benefit was twofold—students got to exercise while also learning some percussion basics. Students generally don’t get to learn band or orchestra instruments until the get to the intermediate school.

“I think it’s important for students to realize that the different subject areas they learn in school do not exist in isolation and that we often combine ideas across different disciplines,” Lingel said. “In this case, students were working on musical skills and exercising their entire body at the same time.”

Matheson would eventually like the students to host a performance for the middle school, or put on the halftime show at a varsity basketball game next season. He also hopes to get the program into other area schools and suggested sharing the equipment with the other Lawrence elementary schools. He thinks other gym classes will see the same success he did.

“Every teacher here tries to find new things to spark the interest of every kid,” Matheson said. The great thing with the education foundation is that there is funding out there for these kinds of projects. I think it’s wonderful that they have the ability to help Lawrence Township teachers fund these kind of programs. There are some really awesome things like assemblies and programs and things that teachers are doing that wouldn’t be done without the support. I think that’s awesome, what they do.”