Caught Digging in the Trash.

From digging in the trash to “DIY” PE equipment for his special education kids in PE to creating a National Craze of innovative high cardio, team friendly activities. The result….kids begging to work out even harder than you ever imagined they could..and loving every minute of it! This blog post will inspire and explain how Cardio Fitness Cups came to be a staple of our indoor PE program supplies we donate.

Guest Blog-Steve Cox-National Director of In-Service-Master Teacher, Project Fit America

Project Fit America National Director of In-Service/Master Teacher/Inventor of Cardio Fitness Cups-

It’s funny/strange how things sometimes just come together, seem to happen, fall in place …. chocolate meets peanut butter, as Stacey calls it! It was the early 80’s and I was teaching physical education in a small, tile floor gymnasium at Watrous Elem School (now called Morris Elementary School) in Des Moines Iowa. I was also a teaching tennis pro in the summer.

Watrous was a single floor building with a large level playground and flat parking lot with few to no steps to negotiate anywhere. I had a 45-minute duty free lunch break three of my five days. There was a pizza place within a five minute walk that had an all you can eat salad bar that included Anderson Erickson Dairy cottage cheese (the best in the world) with a large ice tea for $3.00. So do you see the connection to Cardio-Fitness Cups yet? No? Let’s add a little more to this scenario.

Watrous being a single floor school was a very conducive building for educating special needs students with physical handicaps. I always had several of these classes. I, out of necessity and enjoyment, liked to create, adapt and build some of my physical education equipment. The cups for the large ice tea were a sturdy, plastic 32 ounce colorful cup. Some days during the 45-minute lunch would fly by and I would bring the cup back to school with me. Soon, I had about 20 of these puppies, stacked in one pile in my equipment room. They were very easy to store in a small corner.

A 5th grade class was doing a bowling skills unit and a few special needs kids were integrated in with them. Setting up large plastic bowling pins was very difficult for one special needs boy (let’s call him Fred) but knocking them down was much easier and quite fun however, balancing those bowling pins in any semblance of order was just too hard for Fred. Several Yellow Brick students ( a Project Fit America term for students who are helpful leaders to other students) gladly and often worked/helped with Fred and others. The 32 ounce cups were just about the size of the pins and very colorful, some with neat, recognizable pictures on them. They were very easy to set up in a pattern close to each other or on top of each other. Are you starting to get a picture here?


I simply replaced plastic bowling pins for Fred and some of the others with the cups. This was a natural, time saving and fun alternative. Plus the cups, unlike plastic bowling pins, conveniently could be stacked in groups of 3, 6, and 10 on top of each other and they took up less room on the floor. Also, some students were in wheel chairs with very little ‘reach’ capability. I could set up a flat little school table by them or on the top of a 5 gallon plastic bucket and the cups (Targets) would stack on these. These cups were simply a fine, new, and cheap activity tool for my Physical Education classes.

Then I noticed an interesting occurrence/side affect, quickly sprang out of this. My other physical education kids began clamoring to set up the cups for the special education kids. They were also asking if they could use the cups for their bowling targets instead of the pins.

Other kids too!

I started drinking lots more ice tea and even lowered myself to the point of quickly swiping up left over cups on dirty tables. Ok, let’s be totally honest here…. I even started pillaging through the trash containers when I thought no one was looking. I was wrong!  A couple of my favorite waitresses saw me and said they were going to take a picture and  blackmail me. I told them that, as a teacher, I had no money or friends with money and  therefore ‘blackmail’ would not work. Ha Ha!

I then told them the truth and that the cups were becoming a big hit for various activities        in class. They began coming up with bunches of cups for me and I graciously thanked them and told them to let the corporate office know how I and the kids and I appreciate this. Soon, I had hundreds of cups. All right, do you think it ends here or are you starting to ask yourself….“ So why did he mention, early on, that he was a tennis pro in the summer?” Glad that popped into your head because here comes the tennis ball-cup factor.

As a teaching tennis pro in the summer, I always had the opportunity to accumulate hundreds of used tennis balls. At school I easily had a cache of a thousand balls. I used them for all sorts of fun activities and games. I also evolved into giving away a ‘Birthday 10 S Ball’ to any kid in the school who came to me on their Birthday week and asked for one. I would let them choose the ball and I would write ‘Happy B-Day and their Name’ with a magic marker. So simple and the kids seem to love it! Those with Birthdays in the summer also got one anytime they came in and asked. Hundreds of balls would happily go this route through the years. Although the balls could be thrown, rolled, caught, bounced, juggled, hit, kicked etc. they could not be stacked on each other in any more than a four ball pile.

NOW those CUPS on the other hand had a marvelous ability to be stacked on the floor, on a table, on a bucket bottom, on a wheel chair, on your head and on a racket. Oh, did I mention that I always kept a class set of regular tennis rackets, cut down old tennis rackets and badminton rackets? Balancing cups on a racket while walking, tip-toeing, one leg, eyes closed, crawling etc., can be very challenging and fun. Add a tennis ball or two to that scene and it really gets challenging and exciting. PLUS, ever notice how there is always an indention in the bottom of the cups? (Probably a strength/structure thing.) This indentation allows for a very delicate balance spot (for a ball) when the cup is turned upside down.

If you’re a Physical Education Teacher, you might be jumping ahead in your mind here and contemplating all kinds of other ways to experiment with movement. Let’s add ambidextrous/cross lateral/dominant hand/off hand /weighted tennis ball (Dumball) to the mix. WOW! “Ok you advanced kids, that are having no trouble with this challenge ….. Switch the racket-ball-cup to your ’Off Hand’ and try it.”

Then it would go something like this:

“MR. COX, MR. COX, I can do it even with my un-dominant hand!”
“My goodness Sally, what can’t you do? I know, try to do the same thing with a racket-cup-ball in both hands?”
“Can I try that too Mr. Cox?”
“Sure any of you who want to try it that advanced Left-Brain/Right-Brain/Cross Lateral/Ambidextrous way, go ahead. But remember to be ‘Team Friendly’ about it.”
“ Who remembers what ‘Team Friendly, means?”
“I know Mr. Cox!”
“What Sally?”
“IT MEANS to SHARE, STAY SPREAD OUT so you don’t bother others. Think About Others while you’re moving around and even be willing to HELP Others in a Friendly Way if you see they need it.”
“Holy Cow Sally, you’re not only developing great physical skills, you are also becoming a Yellow Brick Student. I am so proud of you for both!”

Of course scenarios like this were just a pleasure to watch unfold. Much of the excitement was related to the cups! They provided quick improvement and a friendly working atmosphere that “Team Friendly/Yellow Brick” spawns and the simple aspect of sharing, doing good times with friendly peers. I had hundreds of cups at this time but my mind was projecting to what I could do with a thousand or more.

more cups

So I began asking the kids, parents, teachers, lunch ladies to please bring me in all their freshly used “cups.” Yes, I did do some thorough cleaning of the cups. Soon, I had close to a thousand. Now I needed a quick, portable storage method for them. The custodian supplied me with an old trash barrel that sat on a removable wheelbase. It seemed like a good fit at first but I shortly discovered that the barrel was too deep for the shorter kids to negotiate retrieving or replacing cups from the bottom. (Think I had a couple of first graders fall in). It also could easily be knocked off its wheelbase by over zealous students and cups can definitely create over zealous students! So I went to a Lumber/Hardware store in Des Moines. I believe it was Payless Cashway (no longer here). Found a little smaller plastic trash container with permanent wheels and a nice handle. It was shorter and made it much easier for the kids to both retrieve and replace the cups.

Here are a couple of example of the first ‘Mega Multi Cups’ activities I did.
GAME: “Oodles of Cups & Balls”

Medium size gym, flat level tile floor. No lunchroom, music, custodial equipment lurking in the corners for an accident waiting to happen. Hundreds of cups and hundreds of tennis balls readily available, a class of 28 healthy energetic 3rd graders.

Back then:
I used terms like ‘Mine Field’, ‘Poison Berries’, “Swamp’, ‘Sleepy Spiders’, ‘Snow Fort’, ‘Cup Dungeon’, ‘Tall Timber Cups’, ‘Rattlesnake Balls’, ‘Cookie Monster Cups’, “Timberrrrr”, “Yellow Scorpions”, “Cherry Bomb Seeds”
You get the picture…terms that would make a point with the kids and get them excited and ready for a challenge!

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s with open/safe neighborhoods, fence free back yards, polio shots at school, vacant lots, trees and creeks, Cowboys & Indians, Sunday & Vacation Bible School, un-busy streets, no seat belts, worked a Paper Route before school several years, paper bag lunches – only cold milk supplied by school, dogs not leashed, neighbors friendly, walked to school, snowball fights allowed on certain parts of the school playground (teachers participated), most neighbor parents WWII vets, my sister President of the Iowa Girl Scouts, one car families, no air conditioning, fresh milk bottles left on the front porch, unlocked doors, parent spankings, soap for cussing, duck-under-tables atomic bomb drills and even some yes maam/yes sir. So you now have a better understanding of why I was so politically un-correct and warped. Do not re-call ever having a parent complain about trauma or offense caused by any of the terms. Oh well, those were simply the times.

tall towers

GAME ‘Poison Berries/Timber Cups’

Basic procedure:
-Kids “ In a ‘Team Friendly’ manner, on ’Go!’ spread out the balls all over the gym floor without throwing them down.
-Keep them inside the lines of the basketball court.
-When I yell “Done!” quickly/carefully go to the kitchen wall of the gym and wait for the next command.”

Fitness Challenge/ Consequence
-“If you touch a ball (Poison Berries once they’re down) with your foot, ANYTIME once I say GO or Done, you must quickly go over to a side wall and do 12 Wall Pus Ups before you can return” ……. “GO!”
-Kids “ Now that the balls are set out, when I say “Boogie“, I want you to get the Cups in a “Team Friendly” manner and spread them out inside the basket ball court lines.
-Stack them in a simple group of 3 or a stack of 6. When I yell, “DONE!” quickly go to the kitchen wall.

-All of this very ‘Team Friendly.’
-Oh! And if you happen to touch a ball with your foot or drop or knock over a cup, calmly put down any remaining cups in your hand and quickly go to a side wall and do 12 ‘Wall Push-Ups’ or 25 Rope Jumps.” *Put out a half dozen ropes “BOOGIE!” … 3 minutes later…“DONE!”

-Kids “Now the “Poison Berries & Timber Cups” are all set up.
-Notice over on the sidewall I have set out 6 Medicine Balls?
-When you do a Medicine Ball, you must toss it into the wall higher than your head and catch it.
-Now here is your next challenge. I will give each one of you a tennis ball. Then, when I say “Go!”, you must head down to the other wall and then back, while softly tossing the ball up about head height and catching it.
-If you touch a ‘Poison Berry’ or knock over a ‘Timber Tower’, you must calmly put down your ball and quickly go over to the side wall and do TWO of the Fitness Challenges.
-And of course, How Must All of This Be Done? …… TEAM FRIENDLY!!!” ….“Go!”

By now you see the lesson/activity pattern of adding difficulty to the challenge and additional fitness options for the flubs.

Challenge options:
Bounce the tennis ball down & back, balance the tennis ball on a racket down & back, balance a cup & a ball on the racket, softly dribble the tennis ball soccer stile down & back, balance a tennis ball on the racket with one hand and toss a ‘juggling scarf’ with the other etc, etc!

Fitness Options:
Weighted Jump Ropes, Step Up Boxes, Arm Band Stretches, Sit Ups, Weighted Hoops etc, etc!

The accumulation of a thousand cups to go with a thousand balls, plus all the other standard PE equipment Physical Education teachers so often have, made the creative possibilities for activities seemingly endless. Take the cups out of the mix and it just was not even close to the same.

Those of you reading this, that are somewhat familiar with Project Fit America, might be asking yourself, “Where is TCC (Teamwork, Communication & Cooperation) in this? Why hasn’t he mentioned TCC yet?” Actually, TCC was born out of a combination of the cups and balls plus:

-Cut backs in Physical Education scheduling
-Larger classes
-More intricate directions
-Declining school discipline
-Lack of class leaders

I was becoming concerned about the lack of ‘Yellow Brick’ students I was seeing. Around this time, at an educational conference I was introduced to the quote:

“Remember, they don’t simply lick it off the stove!”

That quote really struck me. It motivated and encouraged me to come up with some more specific, consistent ways that my Physical Education could streamline, enable and develop more Yellow Brick Students and therefore Yellow Brick classes.

This was before I was involved with marvelous Project Fit America. Cups and I were just getting started. What a wonderful ride it has been. I’m sure it very much helped open the door to my soon-to-be affiliation with Stacey Cook and Project Fit America. I need to write a follow up blog to this one along the lines of “TCC Cups & More”. Think I’ll let my ol’ brain settle for a few weeks and go fish, hit tennis balls, play with dog and grand kids before I write up that puppy. Later!

cup on steve's head

Project Fit America side note:
Steve Cox was our first National All Star Teacher of the Year-1999. He was invited and is a current Board Member representing all that Physical Education can be. Every one of our All Star Teachers ( Gallery of All Stars ) is a model of this creativity and passion.

In 1999 Steve became an In-Field Trainer to our schools. For two years he talked Anderson Erikson Dairy into giving him 1,000’s and 1,000’s of cups to bring to every school he in-serviced. When the number of Project Fit America Schools got too many for this, we had one year of Dannon donating thousands to us. Then one day, we looked on the bottom of the cup and it had imprinted Berry plastics

We knew from the onset Dannon was not a lasting source and we called Berry Plastics to ask them if they would make special cups for us. The short answer was NO. They make millions of cups a day….we only needed a million a year! We called the Vice President and told him about Steve’s Cups lessons, sent pictures of this and the fitness fire they ignited…in jig time..he said YES!!

To this day, every Project Fit America School receives 1,000 Fitness Cups to serve an average class size of 25 students. We recently opened an online Store for any school to buy them with 100% of the proceeds going back to our charity.…the demand has been so great..but remember Steve digging in the trash? If money to this is can totally do this for free..stalk the lunch room ladies and put a call out to every kid to bring in cups…in no too will have all your kids Team Friendly, Yellow Brick Students and going Cup Crazy!!! Red faced, smiling, sweating and working harder..together in ways you ever imagined!

cup crazy kids

This entry was posted in BLOGS, Getting Kids Fit, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Caught Digging in the Trash.

  1. MeMe Ratliff says:

    What an awesome article! So empowering! I truly hope we get to become a PFA school and have Steve come to Greenwood!

  2. Molly says:

    I enjoyed this story and I shared it with some PE teachers that do not have PFA at their schools. They were embarrassed about creating their own lesson plans out of found objects (some people call this garbage- not the creative types!) It was a relief to them to know that the brainchild of the Fitness Cups started from such humble beginnings and look where it now!

    I am also nostalgic for the era you got to grow up in. However my Fitness Cup is half full and love that you share with future PE teachers how to dig into your imagination and duct tape, shoe strings, wadded pieces of paper – what ever you got and show kids a good time. Oh yeah and maybe just learning how to love exercise too.

  3. Stephanie Elliott says:

    Wow, what an inspirational blog showcasing the difference ONE dedicated and passionate PE teacher can make! The grassroots creativity and ability to be such a “scrapper” to incorporate the cups as a cornerstone piece to the PFA program was nothing short of brilliant! My grandfather, one of eight children from a rural area in Minnesota would always say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!” I think Steve would agree with that philosophy as well 🙂 Coincidences are not random and it was fate that Steve’s path and brain trust crossed with Stacey Cook and Project Fit America. Together their minds and vision for sustainable fitness in education is so powerful! For all schools that have PFA and all future schools to yet receive this program, your kids will be blessed ten fold with fitness and character skills that will forever leave a footprint on their development. I am so thankful and constantly inspired by the magic that was created when chocolate met peanut butter!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *