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Midvale Journal

Israeli game making its name known with East Midvale Elementary students

Oct 31, 2019 04:06PM ● By Julie Slama

East Midvale Principal Matt Nelson takes a turn playing gaga ball with students. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Gaga ball has taken East Midvale Elementary by storm and students race to the three courts to line up to play.

Gaga is Hebrew and translates to “touch-touch” and although some may know it as Israeli dodgeball or octo-ball, named after the octagon shaped walls, the students don’t seem to care about the name of the game, they just want to play, said Principal Matt Nelson.

“It’s a fun, easy game to learn and play,” he said about the game that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s. “It’s a game where the kids can jump right in, and even with our students speaking so many languages, it’s something they love and can participate in with any background since it’s quick to learn.”

In fact, Nelson said after the courts were completed, the students were out playing the very next recess.

Bringing the game to the school was East Midvale Community School Facilitator Shelley McCall’s idea.

“I saw it last year at a camp at a retreat center and thought, ‘This would work at our school,’” she said. “It’s in a contained area or court, has clear rules and everyone can participate in it. Recesses generally tend to be unstructured, but with our Playworks, we’re trying to introduce activities to students that have respectful areas and reinforce team play like badminton, pickleball and other team sports.”

McCall and Nelson brainstormed the idea with Playworks Coach Haley McIntosh, making sure it would be a welcome addition as well as could it be feasible to put in courts at the school. 

Nelson’s dad, Ron, who has helped schools in the past, from building stage sets to establishing school gardens, came and oversaw the construction, setting up stations for cutting, painting and putting together the courts. 

The volunteers came from United Way’s Day of Caring, with Dominion Energy bringing 60 volunteers that day, 30 who put together the three gaga ball courts. All the materials and time were donated so no cost was accrued to the school, Nelson said.

“There was a safety orientation before they split up in six stations cutting, angling, sawing, painting and constructing the courts,” McCall said. “It took four hours to prepare it and an hour after lunch to assemble. It was fast and furious, but amazing how it came together.”

The other 30 volunteers worked on setting up a labyrinth, where students could walk along, and de-escalate if they needed to calm themselves, she added.

The students’ initial response of the gaga courts was great.

“The kids love playing in it. It’s really a game that engages kids and it’s been rewarding to see the kids immediately play,” she said.

Nelson said that teachers were trained about the preferred rules of East Midvale’s game, where although six players are in the court, students regularly rotate in and out of the pit after getting hit with the ball below the knees.

“We set it up as a continuous play, keeping all the kids active,” Nelson said.

Third-grader Landyn Donley was in line to play.

“Every recess there is a line because we like it — a lot,” he said. “I like how we can get people out when we throw the ball. I always try to jump and dodge the ball when it comes.”

Classmate Alice Uwamahoro says she likes being the one to get out her classmates.

“If the ball hits you below the knee, you’re out,” she said. “I like to get them out. I come out here to play this or soccer every day.”