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McDonald's kicks off school PE program

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McDonald's, the company that gave us Happy Meals and supersized fries, is jumping into gym classes.

The fast-food giant is launching a national physical-education program today aimed at third- through fifth-graders and includes games and activities from countries around the world.

McDonald's says 31,000 public elementary schools with 7 million students have agreed to try Passport to Play this year. It's up to individual PE teachers how much they use the new activities, such as Australia's boomerang golf; Japan's Mr. Daruma Fell Down, a game similar to red light, green light; and Holland's korfball, which combines elements of basketball and football. Each time students complete a game from another country, they will get a stamp in a pretend passport -- one of the educational materials that will carry the Golden Arches logo.

Critics say the fast-food company has no business in gym classes.

The initiative comes at a time when 31% of children ages 6 to 19 in the USA are overweight or at risk of becoming so. Some of the blame has been assigned to fast-food diets.

"It is a travesty to have a PE program branded by McDonald's," says psychologist Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "It further commercializes schools and gets the company even more publicity with children."

Bill Lamar, McDonald's chief marketing officer, says, "This is part of our ongoing commitment to having children realize the importance of eating right and staying active."

Some obesity experts are not persuaded. Bryn Austin, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, recently did a study that found most Chicago schools are only a short walking distance from a fast-food restaurant. Pressure is mounting to get fast-food restaurants out of school neighborhoods, she says.

"You have to wonder if this program from McDonald's is in essence a Trojan Horse to keep the McDonald's brand name intruding into our children's schools," Austin says.

Also, schools already have physical education curricula. "What is to say this is any better than what exists?" Brownell says. No one is fretting over the lack of curricula; it's the lack of time devoted to PE, he says.

But others say the games could be an asset.

"This isn't one more thing to teach; it takes skills students have learned in class and brings them to life in games," says Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a group for physical education and sport professionals. The organization provided advice for the new program.

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