trying a new play on PlayPlace
Burger giant's R-Gym offers aerobic
By John Schmeltzer
December 4, 2006
McDonald's is getting serious about childhood
obesity--to the point where it is considering replacing
play areas in thousands of its restaurants with kids'
gyms where young customers can burn off their Happy
The new R-Gyms--where R stands for Ronald--would replace
the slide-centric PlayPlaces with a setup offering
sports-oriented activities such as stationary exercise
bikes, rope climbing and other aerobic activities for
kids up to 12 years of age.
The gyms are the latest effort by the Oak Brook-based
hamburger giant to deflect accusations that it has
contributed to the growing rate of childhood obesity in
the United States. Recently, the world's largest
restaurant company introduced apple slices and low-fat
milk and expanded its salad offerings to boost its
healthy menu offerings.
In the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity in
the U.S. has more than tripled, leading to a dramatic
increase in the number of children with Type II
diabetes, a disease once limited to sedentary,
overweight adults, according to government experts.
About 15 percent of kids are now considered obese.
"The intent is to provide games that allow children to
use their imagination in an active lifestyle," said
William Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman. "This is a
continuation of what we have been doing for more than 20
years with the PlayPlace, providing a safe place where
children can come and have fun."
So far the concept, in early testing with only seven
R-Gyms constructed, is being greeted enthusiastically.
Two R-Gyms are open in Illinois: One is in west suburban
Woodridge, while the other is in Chillicothe, about 10
miles north of Peoria. In addition, R-Gyms are open in
Oklahoma, California and Colorado. It could be some time
before the restaurant giant makes a final decision about
the gyms because it typically will spend up to two years
testing an idea before rolling it out throughout the
chain. Nationwide, McDonald's has about 5,500 PlayPlaces
at its more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants.
Whitman said customers love the idea of having this kind
of interactive area for their kids.
But Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical
School and the co-founder of the Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood, predicted the mini-gyms won't
do much to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.
"It takes hours to work off the calories from a Big
Mac," said Linn. "What it does is make it appear as if
McDonald's is addressing the issue. But they are not."
"What McDonald's needs to do is stop marketing junk food
to children and stop sending Ronald McDonald into
schools," said Linn, arguing that Ronald McDonald
promotes the restaurant at the same time he is
encouraging reading or some other program.
McDonald's said redevelopment of the PlayPlaces is being
conducted in conjunction with the program launched three
years ago to remodel or rebuild many of its restaurants.
First opened nearly 20 years ago, the PlayPlace
initially was an unsupervised outdoor playground that
offered kids a place to work off their energy while
their mothers relaxed with a hamburger. In recent years,
most PlayPlaces have become enclosed attachments to the
Whitman said the company has not broken out the cost of
the R-Gym because it is part of the larger redesign
"This is an investment in the restaurant," he said.
Instead of emphasizing less-active crawling tubes,
slides and ball pits, the gyms are divided into
age-specific activity zones for kids.
The toddler zone is an area designed for children up to
age 3. It offers a place where they can climb, play with
soft balls or go sliding, according to Danya Proud, a
spokeswoman for the restaurant chain.
The active zone for kids ages 4 to 8 features climbing
challenges, aerobics, balancing, an obstacle course and
a slalom challenge. A sport zone, offering areas for
jumping, dancing and bike riding over interactive
mountain trails is designed for kids 9 to 12 years old,
In addition, the gyms, unlike the PlayPlace, include a
seating area with excellent views of the play areas.
Whitman said, "It is primarily up to the parents to
supervise the PlayPlace or R-Gym or to participate with