In school, kids are having big stack attacks

Cup stacking catches fire as fun new sport for grade-schoolers

Family Matters

October 24, 2004|By Karen Uhlenhuth | By Karen Uhlenhuth,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Cup stacking sounds like something you'd do at the kitchen sink, not in, say, the school gym.

But, on certain days, Karen Shute's physical education class at M.E. Pearson Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., is a frenzied scene of cups being stacked and unstacked, stacked and unstacked.

A couple of dozen fifth-graders were sitting at long tables in the gymnasium recently, each with a dozen identical plastic cups at the ready. They were in three stacks of three, six and three.

"OK ," Shute shouted. "Ready, go!"

There was a hum of concentration as cups tumbled and students assembled them into pyramids two or three cups high.

"Dos manos, dos manos," the teacher reminded her mostly Hispanic students. Two hands, they were to use two hands.

A great clatter erupted as the first of the students assembled their pyramids, then telescoped the cups back into three compact stacks, then thrust their arms up high in a sign of victory.

Cup stacking is no longer only about emptying the dishwasher. In the last few years, it has emerged as a sport, as educational play, as competition -- although it's not part of the Olympic lineup just yet. In May 600 stackers from all over the globe competed in the second annual Cup Stacking World Championship in Denver.

And schools throughout the nation have been getting with the cup stacking program, to the delight of most of their students.

"The kids just go crazy" when she brings out the cups, said Deb Deatrick, who teaches physical education at Hawthorn Hill Elementary School in Lee's Summit, Mo. "Absolutely, they love it."

The idea couldn't be much simpler: 12 identical cups are stacked pyramid-style into various configurations including pyramids of three, six or 10 cups. Then the cups are collapsed again, all as fast as possible.

Shute calls it "an awesome thing. The kids just love it."

Alicia Alcantar clearly was thrilled at how quickly she assembled her pyramids and then broke them down.

"It's like a competition," she said. "It's seeing how fast you can stack the cups. Sometimes you can mess up."

About 6,600 schools across the country have bought cups specially designed for sporting purposes from Bob Fox, the Colorado-based king of cup stacking.

"When I first saw it at a workshop, I thought, 'I don't know about this,' " said Kellea Neas, who teaches physical education at two Piper, Kan., elementary schools. She pondered it, then decided to spend a little extra money on the cups, which have holes in the bottoms to take the stickiness out of the stacking.

"The kids have really, really enjoyed it. My son goes to another district, and they do cup stacking. I think it's catching on."

Fox, the marketing master behind this phenomenon, is a onetime physical education teacher who ran across cup stacking in an unlikely venue.

"Tonight Show" origins

"I first saw it on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1990, right before he went off the air," Fox said from the Englewood, Colo., office of his business, Speed Stacks Inc.

"A group of kids were cup stacking, and they did a relay race and involved Johnny Carson and his band leader. I was just fascinated. Five years later, I became a physical education teacher. I remembered this cup stacking thing, and I thought it would be great to incorporate it into my P.E. class ... like soccer or basketball. The kids were just crazy about it.

"Then I was so excited, I started sharing what I was doing with other P.E. teachers in my district. Then I got invited to start sharing it on the state level. Then I got invited to other states. It's that classic American story. My wife and I started our company while I was teaching. It started in our basement while I was teaching about six years ago. Now I have a company of 18 folks, and I'm introducing the sport all over the world."

There's a point to this cup stacking madness, Fox said. Nearly all people tend to use one hand much more than the other ... to write, to brush their teeth, to throw baseballs.

"We believe if we can start kids using both hands, it will help with things like playing a musical instrument, typing skills. The neat thing about cup stacking is it stands alone as a competitive sport, but it's also developmental and helps with other sports. It's terrific for basketball skills. We have coaches who are very interested in Speed Stacks for that very reason."

You might wonder why, if a child wants to learn piano or basketball, she wouldn't just practice that, rather than going through this preliminary cup stacking.

"For kids it's downright fun," Fox said. "It's very hands-on, very immediate. ... Although it's simple, it's very challenging. Speed is everything."

Benefits debated

There are little scientific data on the cognitive effects of cup stacking. In March, an academic journal published a study that found that a group of second-graders who practiced cup stacking for five weeks significantly improved their reaction time and hand-eye coordination, compared with a group that did not stack cups.

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