It’s 9:30 on a Sat­urday morning at the Madison Park Com­mu­nity Center gym in Rox­bury. A 3-​​year-​​old boy steadies a ball, then kicks it into a mini soccer net.

You’re a pro—you’re too good,” a North­eastern stu­dent vol­un­teer tells him. “Try some­thing harder.” The child grabs a Hula-​​Hoop and swings it up and over his arm.

Given the unbri­dled enthu­siasm of the nearly three dozen chil­dren, ages 3 to 8, run­ning around the gym, you’d think they’d just been given an end­less summer vaca­tion. In a way, maybe they have.

The kids kicking soccer balls, shooting hoops with Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Mon­ster, and jumping rope are taking part in a weekly event called Open Gym, a free play pro­gram for chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, run by trained North­eastern students.

Open Gym is spon­sored by Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, a pilot pro­gram that aims to edu­cate preschoolers’ par­ents and care­givers about the impor­tance of healthy eating and phys­ical activity. The initiative—a part­ner­ship among North­eastern, the Boston Red Sox and Children’s Hos­pital Boston—serves chil­dren enrolled in Head Start pro­grams in the Lower Rox­bury, Mis­sion Hill, Fenway and South End communities.

Two-​​hour Open Gym ses­sions will be held at the Madison Park Com­mu­nity Center every Sat­urday until August 15. “Open Gym is a fun time for chil­dren to be cre­ative and active with their par­ents in a sup­portive, safe envi­ron­ment,” says pro­gram man­ager Tara Agrawal, who notes that the activ­i­ties strengthen bonds between chil­dren and their care­givers.
Not only does the pro­gram help fam­i­lies carve out time to spend together, it also instills healthy lifestyle habits.
A recent study found that nearly 20 per­cent of 4-​​year-​​olds in the United States are obese. That’s because Amer­i­cans are less active than in years past, says Shari Nether­sole, med­ical director for com­mu­nity health at Children’s Hos­pital Boston.

The hope for Open Gym, she says, is that it will “pro­mote an engaging family life,” and create “self-​​sustaining activ­i­ties” that con­tinue out­side the gym.

For 3-​​year-​​old Janarie Sim­mons and her mom, Trip­petta, the play pro­gram is a much-​​needed change. “It’s a way to get out of the house, and out of the fridge, and it gets Janarie away from the TV,” says Trip­petta.
As her mom watches, Janarie scoops up a plastic ball and rolls it toward one of her peers, who rolls it back. “All smiles here,” Trip­petta says, beaming.

Her little girl began her morning shooting a small bas­ket­ball from inside a Hula-​​Hoop. “It’s more than just exer­cise,” Trip­petta notes. “It’s coordination.”

But all Janarie seems to care about is having fun. “There are so many balls flying, she can go any­where and she’s not going to get bored,” her mom says. “And I don’t have to worry here. I can be at peace.”

Jordan Thomas, a North­eastern exercise-​​physiology grad stu­dent and an Open Gym coor­di­nator who recruits stu­dent vol­un­teers and reaches out to fam­i­lies, voices the under­lying sen­ti­ment of the morning: “This is an awe­some oppor­tu­nity for care­givers and their chil­dren. There’s not any­thing really like it hap­pening now.”