700 compete in Destination Imagination


(Original publication: March 2, 2003)

Just because there was no sweating involved in yesterday’s Destination Imagination tournament didn’t mean it wasn’t as strenuous as any athletic competition.

No one had to pole vault anything, but coming up with a skit about a pig lost in a windstorm, in less than 30 minutes, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, said competitor Jayme Epstein, 13.

“It’s like agility for the brain,” Epstein said breathlessly as her Dobbs Ferry Middle School team waited to be judged in the “Once Improv A Time” division.

Epstein was one of about 700 students ages 5 to 18 who crowded White Plains High School to compete in the tournament, a day-long mental olympics that asks children to use improvisational theater, basic engineering and quick thinking to solve on-the-spot challenges.

The event, sponsored by the Putnam-Northern Westchester Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, drew teams from Putnam, Westchester, Orange, Nassau and Rockland counties, all hoping to advance to the state competition to be held on April 5 in Binghamton. Besides being fun, the Destination Imagination organization hopes the annual, international tournament teaches children creative thinking, self-confidence and teamwork.

No one sang the national anthem to open the games, although the Blind Brook Middle School team did ask for a moment of silence for Fred Rogers, the children’s television icon who died last week. But the ensuing competition was every bit as tough as a Mets vs. Yankees doubleheader.

Teams entered one of five challenges, each requiring them to perform a play, coupled with side assignments like building a wood structure with no glue or designing an adventure game that links at least three nations.

The players worked practically coach-less — parents and team managers were not allowed to give any technical advice or offer help preparing costumes and scenery.

Most teams spent an average of five to 10 hours a week preparing for the past four months. Yorktown Heights fourth-grader Kavya Devarakonda, 11, had to give up ballet. Tyler Ingram, 9, of Crompond, sacrificed watching a television special featuring the Iron Giant robot. “The kids next door were watching it,” Tyler said. “It was hard.”

The training paid off in the heat of competition. Given 30 minutes to make skit costumes and props using only blue duct tape and newspaper, the Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School team, the Hat Tricks, speedily constructed a giant syringe and ruffled nurses’ skirts, along with a king-size floppy paper pacemaker.

The Hat Tricks’ next task was a little tougher — using the words “with happy underwear” as many times as possible in a skit set in an operating room. They came up with lines like, “Even with happy underwear, you didn’t do the operation right!”

“It’s really hard to come up with a skit people will like and laugh at because it’s so impromptu,” said Sarah Luntz, 13, an eighth-grade Hat Tricks veteran. Her team made it to the Destination Imagination World Finals in Knoxville, Tenn., last year and placed 18th of 54 teams in their category.

Three teams from Pierre Van Cortlandt in Croton-on-Hudson were among the local winners yesterday, along with two teams from Somers Middle School, and one team each from Somers Intermediate School, Croton High School, Lincoln-Titus Elementary School in the Lakeland school district, and the Crompond and Brookside elementary schools in Yorktown.

But, as Carmel mother Sherrill Doar, team manager for the George Fischer Middle School group said, “It’s not just about winning. It’s about taking the journey and meeting the challenge.”

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