It's a rare day when television encourages children to turn off the tube and go outside to play, but today is just such a day.
The Disney Channel premieres "Z Games," a 30-minute reality sports series featuring games created by kids for kids. True, they have to watch the show to get an idea of what they're supposed to do, but afterwards the backyard becomes a giant experiment.
In a press conference with TV critics in Pasadena, Calif., executive producer Don Wells said getting kids off the couch is one of the show's main objectives.
"Disney came to us with the idea of doing the show and the primary [part of it] was to encourage kids to be active," Well said, "to value that activity and realize that what they're doing in their backyards is just as athletic as football or baseball in an organized league."
In the first Z Game, children in Vero Beach, Fla., introduce a game called "Target." A water balloon is placed in the handle of a shovel and the player, with his back to the shovel, jumps on the other end, sending the balloon sailing across the yard. If his aim is good, the water balloon will land on a giant bull's eye target. Where it lands on the target will determine the number of points he collects.
Children jumping on a shovel sounds dangerous, but "Z Games" takes pains to show how the shaft and blade of the shovel have been padded with foam rubber. Wells said safety is an important issue. Both children and their parents are asked whether anyone has ever gotten hurt playing the games kids create.
"We try to make absolutely certain that once we put this game on television that it's going to be a safe game for kids at home, anywhere, to play," Wells said.
Each week "Z Games" also features a segment in the "Z Lab." Four kids get to select one piece of play equipment each from a locker room, and then they have 20 minutes to create a new game using only the items they've selected.
Host Greg Siff, 21, serves as the show's anchor, introducing segments and explaining how the various games are played. He had his own experience creating games growing up in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. In Siff's "Boogie Board Ball," someone throws a tennis ball out into the ocean, everyone paddles toward it and whoever gets to the ball first gets to take the first wave in. If the thrower tosses the ball too far out, he has to paddle out and retrieve it himself.
"And then you take a bunch of sand and drop it on his head," Siff said.
So far most submissions for Z Games have come from The Disney Channel Web site (www.disneychannel.com) as part of the network's "Zoog Disney" initiative. "Zoog Disney" is now a block of programs on The Disney Channel weekends from 5 to 7 p.m. that encourage interactivity via the Web site.
"The genesis was really to make sure that we are always where kids are," said "Zoog Disney" creator Eleo Hensleigh. "We were seeing kids going more and more to their computers for entertainment and information. We wanted to be where our audience is."
For "Z Games," Disney camera crews have visited game creators and their families in 15 states and 49 cities.
"When we go to shoot them in their backyards, wherever that might be, they're always interested about the other games in other places," Siff said. "This notion of activity is interesting and it ties into the notion of a community, which is what we're hoping to create here."
Z Games aren't limited to suburban kids in wide open spaces.
"We've got a game in New York City called 'Wall Ball' and it's literally played with a tennis ball, a bunch of kids and a wall," Wells said. "They have adapted that into their environment; they take advantage of what's there."
Another Z Game in the premiere, "Odd Ball," was created by kids in Doylestown using half a rubber ball in a baseball-like game.
With all this outdoor activity and fresh air, The Disney Channel would seem to be encouraging less TV viewing. Wells said he just wants kids to enjoy what they have.
"The circumstances by which Z Games are created are entirely from the backyards of kids," he said. "Their ability to focus on what they have and turn that into games is incredibly far-reaching."
When: 5:05 p.m. today on The Disney Channel.
Host: Greg Siff.