There was a lot of whooping and hollering as a group of exuberant students gathered for recess time at Asphalt Green on the Upper East Side. They were playing a game called “popcorn.”
“Listen up everyone,” yelled one of the instructors, Zack Cruz, to quiet the noise. “We are going to throw the ball in the air, clap one time, catch it, and then pass it to your neighbor. Everyone ready to go? Say yes!”
One student crouched down. “We can do this,” she said.
But the student was not 8; she was probably in her 80s. Most of the popcorn players that day were retirement age, or older.
Since the mid-1980s, Asphalt Green has specialized in creating athletic programs for children. One of the biggest initiatives at the nonprofit is sending coaches into New York City schools to play active games with over 28,000 children at recess.
This year, however, Asphalt Green trainers decided to apply their expertise to older generations, developing a class called Skills in Motion, which features adult versions of playground games. Older people “are just a different type of kid,” said Mr. Cruz. “You have your young kids, and you have your big kids. They all want to be free and silly.”
Over the next hour, the group mastered the game, adding more balls, and more complexity, to the mix. They split into teams and played volleyball with colorful balloons. They formed a circle by holding hands and passed around a hula hoop without letting go, using only their bodies. They beat rhythm sticks in the air, dancing to their favorite songs from the ’60s through the ’80s.
They also played versions of dodgeball, tag and fireball, which required rolling a ball around a circle using their hands as paddles.
“When I tell my friends I’m going to a 60-plus class, they think I’m sitting in a chair, stretching,” said Lois Siegel, 79. “But we are animals. We fight for that balloon or ball. I feel like a kid again.”
The program is currently being tried out in five locations across the city: both Asphalt Green campuses (on the Upper East Side and in Battery Park City), the Carter Burden Roosevelt Island Senior Center, and at two Union Settlements in East Harlem. Right now there are about 70 participants. Asphalt Green is hoping to make the program available to thousands more next year.
Instructors say they are constantly surprised by their students’ competitiveness and enthusiasm for moving in more strenuous and creative ways. “Earlier we had them all go down to the ground, and one of them was starting to bear crawl,” said Samantha Frazier, one of the coaches. “That person didn’t even want to bend down at first, and there she goes.”
That’s exactly the idea. The class was created to challenge older people to move in ways that will preserve their strength and coordination in the future. All the activities deliberately test balance, so participants can learn how to readjust their bodies and keep two feet on the ground.
“If someone throws a ball, you don’t know where it is going to go, so you have to react,” said David Ludwig, Asphalt Green’s director of community programs.
“We want to show that the floor is not your enemy,” said Marcy Simon, manager of senior fitness programs. “You have to know how to get up from the floor without hurting yourself.”
Preventing older people from falling, Mr. Ludwig said, is no small feat. According to the New York State Department of Health, the annual cost of hospitalizations because of falls is around $1.7 billion. On top of that, 60 percent of hospitalizations lead to stays in nursing homes or rehabilitative centers, which compounds costs even more.
“I’ve never fallen, thank God,” said Jennie Lorenzana, 74, who lives on the Upper East Side. “But I take the class because it makes me feel more confident. The hour goes by very fast — too fast.”
That said, balloon volleyball shouldn’t be the only prevention method for people, experts say. “Workout classes alone are not the best way to prevent falls,” said Kathleen Cameron, the senior director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging. “Other factors include reviewing your medications, making your home safe, getting your eyes and ears checked regularly, and talking with your doctor and family.”
Ms. Cameron added that it’s too soon to tell whether the Asphalt Green program, still in its pilot phase, will produce quantifiable results. But the nonprofit is trying to measure what it can by partnering with a team at the nearby Hospital for Special Surgery, which specializes in orthopedics, to survey and collect data on participants throughout the program’s 20-week session.
Participants do not need scientific data, however, to enjoy a more robust social life. Indeed, playground games seem to have the same advantage for schoolchildren looking to make friends as they do for the 60-plus crowd.
Ms. Siegel is learning Spanish from some of her new friends, who teach her a new word every time she sees them. “I see them and wave and say, ‘Buenos Dias,’” said Ms. Siegel, who runs into her workout buddies, she explained, at local places like the Dollar Tree on 101st Street. “This class has opened so many doors to me.”