Page Elementary students race out the school door to the Gaga pit when recess starts. One leg at a time, between 20 to 30 of them quickly jump over the wall of a 24-foot wide wooden, pentagon-shaped pit with a dirt floor. Once everyone is crammed inside, a student outside the wall throws a rubber ball into the pit and the game begins. This all takes about 10 seconds.
Sheer chaos comes next as students whirl, jump, run and dodge around the pit so fast it’s hard to keep track of the ball. You can’t throw it like you do in dodgeball — you have to smash it with your hand or fist. Hit a player between the waist and feet and he or she is out. Eliminated players jump back over the fence, a bit dejected, but quickly turn back to cheer the action.
Whew. Welcome to the game of Gaga.
As fewer and fewer students remain inside the pit, the noise from outside of it grows louder and louder. The last two players battle it out until one is hit, and the other one wins. Then, everyone jumps back in the pit again for a new game.
Most Page students had never played the dodgeball-like game before the pit was installed this year. They quickly learned from friends who did know how to play, and by week two of school “team death matches” were happening. That’s when only team members are left to fight it out for the win. Students usually fit in two Gaga games before recess ends.
Devalyn Sweet, aka Dev the Daredevil, says the game is fun and challenging, which is what he likes. His strategy is to never get distracted. Preslee Vandemuelen Hall learned Gaga at summer camp, and says staying by the wall and not in the middle is her plan in the pit. Ale Rodas, who had never played the game before this year, has won about five matches since school started. He says playing with team members who look out for one another is the best method.
Parents Puzzled by the Pit
Students say none of their parents know how to play the game, and some parents wondered what was being built on the playground. A father at the school’s open house who stopped to check out the pit said it looked like a place for a greased pig contest.
Principal Michael Gelmi had seen the game played once at Camp Manitoul-Lin in Middleville before it was brought to Page. “I heard kids talk about it and they loved it,” Gelmi says. The school’s fourth- and fifth-graders are at the age where they like to play games a bit more than playing on a structure, he says, making Gaga a perfect fit.
“It’s awesome,” Gelmi adds. “They just have a blast.”
Many community members came together to build the pit. ProBuild of Portage donated the lumber and the Middleville Lions Club and Brian Appel Builders supplied the labor.
Appel, who is a member of the playground committee, had never heard of Gaga before he found himself helping construct the pit. “I had no idea the gaga pit would be so popular,” he says, adding he enjoys giving back to the community. “It’s even better feeling to know that the kids are enjoying it.”
Other schools in the Grand Rapids area also have installed Gaga pits, which, according to a New York Times article, became “mainstream” in 2012. Web sites say the game got its start in a Jewish community in Australia in the 1960s. The name “Gaga” (sometimes spelled Ga-ga) means “touch, touch” in Hebrew. The game also is called Israeli dodgeball, Octo-Ball and Panda Ball.
Other playground improvements include the installation of a new play structure with climbing walls and monkey bar rings, replacing pea stones with wood chips, moving pieces of playground equipment and more. The project was paid for through playground funds, PTO fundraisers and school store profits. Total cost of the improvements is $27,000, which includes $15,200 for the new structure.
More playground changes will be made next year, including the building of a pavillion, Gelmi says. And if Gaga remains popular, they might just build another pit.