Metro-East Living

Here’s why kids in Mascoutah are giving up video games and air conditioning to play outside

Giving up the screen: Mascoutah athletic director challenges kids to get outside this summer

The M-Town Outdoor Challenge is Mascoutah High School athletic director Scott Battas' project to encourage kids to play outside. Twice a week, he ventures into the community to give them prizes and recognition on social media.
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The M-Town Outdoor Challenge is Mascoutah High School athletic director Scott Battas' project to encourage kids to play outside. Twice a week, he ventures into the community to give them prizes and recognition on social media.

Parents have struggled to get children to play outside in the summer for as long as TVs, computers, video games — and air conditioners — have existed.

But it seems to be getting worse, said Scott Battas, athletic director and former football coach at Mascoutah High School. About six weeks ago, he was driving home for lunch and noticed that local parks, playgrounds, trampolines and basketball courts were deserted.

“When I was little, we didn’t have video games,” he said. “... I played outside, me and my brother. My parents said, ‘Get the heck out of here. We’ll let you know when it’s time for dinner.’”

That may sound like something a senior citizen would say, but Battas is only 39, and he’s concerned that children are losing the skills that sports and other outdoor activities can help develop. Not to mention the health benefits of getting up off the couch and being physically active.

In late May, Battas created the M-Town Outdoor Challenge, a communitywide program that encourages kids to play outside by giving them prizes, pats on the back and recognition on social media.

“I really want kids out there competing because that builds character and competitiveness, and (competitiveness is) an important skill,” he said. “You’re going to need it later in life.”

This isn’t the first program of its kind in the town of about 8,000 residents. Battas spearheaded a Mascoutah Spirit Snowman Challenge last winter. Some 85 children made snowmen after a big snow and dressed them in purple and white to show support for Indians sports teams.

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Mascoutah High School athletic director Scott Battas takes photos with children playing outside and then posts them on Facebook as part of the M-Town Outdoor Challenge. Provided

Choices range from tag to wiffle ball

Battas announced the M-Town challenge on a Facebook page called “Residents of Mascoutah, Illinois.” He listed some of the games children played when he was a boy: Wiffle ball, flag football, hoops, kick the can, trampoline gymnastics, street hockey and plain old tag.

Yes, the weather was hot and kids got tired, but they had fun and learned the value of competition and teamwork and the lessons of winning and losing, he wrote.

“Our athletic program is on the rise, but one thing we are trying to do better than any other community is developing a competitive edge that makes us elite. Here is the deal: I challenge every kid in our wonderful town of Mascoutah to play outside for a period of time every single day this summer!”

Hundreds of people liked or commented on the post, most applauding Battas for a worthwhile effort and others asking how they could get their children or grandchildren involved.

Supporters include Lisa Woodrome, wife of MHS principal Brandon Woodrome. She was out in the yard on Tuesday, supervising nine children, including five of her own. Some were shooting hoops in the driveway. Others were jumping on a trampoline. One was driving a plastic kiddie car.

“The temptation of video games can really make kids just want to be inside and take it easy,” Woodrome said. “But when there’s a challenge, there’s an incentive to get out and have fun, especially for the boys. They like that competition.

“(The M-Town program) really works, and it’s been great for our community.”

Scott Battas loved to play sports as a boy. He’s now Mascoutah High School athletic director, and he’s trying to get children in the community to spend more time outdoors. Provided

Coaches patrol streets twice a week

This summer, Battas is identifying two days a week as M-Town “challenge days.” He lets people know the night before on Facebook that he and other coaches will be driving around town for an hour or two, trying to catch kids in the act of playing outside.

On Tuesday, Battas climbed into a Mascoutah School District 19 white Suburban and headed toward a neighborhood of mobile homes in the southeast part of town. He jumped out of the vehicle when he saw seven children preparing to play kickball in a vacant lot.

“I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you playing outside all the time,” he said.

Battas joined hands with the children for a prayer circle before they posed for a photograph holding a M-Town Outdoor Challenge sign that would be posted on social media later in the day. Then he gave them purple M-Town wristbands and souvenir Mascoutah cups.

Battas stuck around for a few minutes to watch the kickball game, noting that the kids improvised by turning a barbecue grill, telephone pole and electrical box into bases. None seemed bothered by the heat, despite temperatures inching toward 90 degrees.

“We play soccer, kickball, softball and baseball,” said Reine Grant, 14. “It’s fun. We don’t want to be stuck inside watching TV and doing nothing. We like to be outside — even in the winter.”

Reine’s mother, Amber Grant, came out of the house when she saw Battas. She told him that one of her seven children, 1-year-old Ziek Grant, is sure to become a track star in high school, judging by the way he runs today.

Grant is another big fan of the M-Town program.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “... I want these kids to understand there’s a whole world out there beside video games and electronics.”

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Mascoutah High School athletic director Scott Battas congratulates three boys for being outside. He was making his rounds as part of the M-Town Outdoor Challenge, a community-wide program that encourages kids to play outside. Derik Holtmann

Playing outside can be ‘contagious’

Battas drove through a couple other neighborhoods, stopping and pulling over whenever he saw children playing outside.

There were two boys playing hockey in a driveway, across the street from a home where four girls were trying out the game of “roof ball.” They threw a rubber ball on the roof and earned points by catching it as it bounced back down. The first one to get 20 points won the game.

“Whenever you’re in your house, you don’t get to meet new friends,” said Greer Williams, 9. “But when you’re outside playing games, people will notice you and want to play with you.”

The girls were being supervised by Liz Casey, 36, a mother of two and former Belleville schoolteacher who will be teaching math at Mascoutah Middle School this fall.

“I feel like we’ve tried really hard this summer to have a mix of indoor and outdoor time,” she said. “I think it’s just healthy for kids to be outside playing. We also spend a lot of time at the pool.”

Battas also made contact with three boys in purple Mascoutah baseball shirts walking down a sidewalk, one carrying a basketball; and two boys shooting hoops outside their grandparents’ home.

Robin and Kevin McCoy made sure their grandsons, Cameron McCoy, 7, and Jayden McCoo, 9, didn’t get overheated.

“We’re like, ‘Take a break now and then and get a drink of water because it’s hot out here,’” said Robin McCoy, 61. “If there’s a group of kids, I’ll bring out a jug of water and cool pops. I keep them in the freezer.”

Battas plans to make the M-Town Outdoor Challenge an annual program. He considers it a success because more children are playing outside in Mascoutah.

“The challenge is really for the parents to challenge their kids to play outside, and them for the kids to challenge other kids to play outside,” he said. “It’s contagious. Once you get a few kids playing outside, it doesn’t take too long for it to double.”

Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.