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With murals, climbing stations Riverside Elementary boasts unique gym

Fifth-grader Hannah Barber catches a rope swing during physical education class at Riverside Elementary. The school’s physical education teachers painted designs on the gym’s walls in 2005, and have added elements to the gym each year to encourage upper body strength exercises and physical activity. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

Fifth-grader Hannah Barber catches a rope swing during physical education class at Riverside Elementary. The school’s physical education teachers painted designs on the gym’s walls in 2005, and have added elements to the gym each year to encourage upper body strength exercises and physical activity. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

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Riverside Elementary fifth-grader Jonathan Hallenbeck prepares to swing on a rope during physical education class. Twice each year, the gym features several rope swings and climbing walls to encourage students to be active and build upper body strength. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

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Fifth-graders at Riverside Elementary, from left, Banks Lacey, Sofia Acuna and Jordyn Boscia use a climbing wall during physical education class. The gym was transformed about eight years ago with paintings, murals and climbing ropes to encourage students to be active and build upper body strength. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

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Fifth-grade students at Riverside Elementary use several rope swings and cargo nets to build upper body strength. The gym was transformed about eight years ago by teachers Mike Tontillo and Craig Whitten, who have added elements each year since. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

SUWANEE — Mike Tontillo insists that every physical education program in Gwinnett is something special in its own way. In the case of Riverside Elementary, that means the gym features a black hole, a magical enchanted land, cosmic bowling alley, space odyssey and full-size field goal, all painted or assembled on its walls.

Then there are the nine swinging ropes, a climbing wall and assorted cargo nets and tunnels that simultaneously build upper body strength and drain endless energy from bouncing elementary school kids. All below booming speakers that play the latest up-tempo popular kids’ music.

“You get to exercise, and you get to have fun while you’re doing it,” fifth-grader Abbi Anderson said.

Tontillo and fellow physical education teacher Craig Whitten are in their eighth year of repurposing the gym and P.E. program at Riverside. They do it twice each year, at the beginning and end of the school year.

Because of budgets and time, they’ve added elements each year since 2005 to do something out of the ordinary. The idea is to encourage constant movement and activity for students of all skill levels and abilities. They’ve even watched a 60-year-old teacher swing from one of the ropes.

“If you’re a kindergartener, or a fifth-grader, or even an adult,” Whitten said, “all of us can do it.”

A far cry from the P.E. classes that Tontillo, Whitten and many parents remember when they were kids.

“It’s not just kickball and dodgeball anymore,” Whitten said.

They decided to focus on upper body strength because Tontillo said while students are often active, they rarely build upper body strength on their own.

As a youngster himself, Tontillo remembers a lone rope hanging in his gym in elementary school that was the only chance to work on upper body strength. And most kids couldn’t do it.

“What we’ve allowed kids to do is have multiple opportunities to be successful with upper body strength,” he said. “We see so many kids tell us they’ve completed the whole challenge, or the whole adventure wall, and you just can’t get that strength with one rope hanging in the gym.”

The teachers, who have a combined 21 years of experience at the school, said the idea came after they had a passion to find something unique, and make P.E. more exciting.

“We wanted to go over and beyond and think outside the box,” Whitten said. “We wanted an out-of-the-ordinary P.E. program, a cutting edge program. We wanted to encourage other P.E. programs to enhance their programs by enhancing their gym and making more exciting education programs, as opposed to a boring old plain gymnasium.”

Thanks to building in a couple thousand dollars from the school budget annually, and Parent Teacher Association donations, Tontillo said, “We’ve been able to make a reality out of all our ideas.”

The teachers said it helps them fulfill a motto, which is to have an innovative and creative physical education experience in a nurturing environment with a love of life and for one another.

“(Students) come in, they’re pumped up, they’re excited,” Whitten said. “This can only enhance the physical education as opposed to take it away.”