EAGAN, Minn. – Ari hadn't been on a field trip in more than two years.
The fifth grader isn't unlike most students throughout Minnesota, having had to navigate drastically different circumstances throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Ari and hundreds of other kids had the opportunity to experience a sense of normalcy again last week, when they visited Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for a unique Play 60 Field Day hosted by the Vikings and Midwest Dairy.
More than 35 Twin Cities schools totaling 2,500-plus fourth, fifth and sixth graders participated in an open-play field day at TCO Stadium to celebrate the transition from elementary to middle school. Different activity stations featured a Vikings-themed Plinko board complete with prizes, an inflatable bag toss, Giant Jenga, an obstacle course, "SKOL Bowl," flag football, passing and field goal challenges and even a coloring station.
View photos of local fourth, fifth and sixth graders participating in an open-play field day at TCO Stadium.
"You don't have to play football or even enjoy football to have fun today," said Brandon Clemens, Vikings Director of Experiential and Youth Marketing.
Ari and her classmate, Sophie, said their favorite part of the morning was simply getting to spend time with friends outside of the classroom.
Even Sophie, who admitted to cheering for a different NFC North team, donned a Vikings long-sleeved shirt with a smile.
"It's my twin sister's shirt," she explained. "We have a divided house. My sister and my dad are Vikings fans; me and my mom are Packer fans."
Ari, meanwhile, wore an Adam Thielen jersey proudly. The young Vikings fan said Justin Jefferson has become her favorite player over the past two seasons, but she hasn't lost her affinity for Thielen.
Clemens explained the goal of introducing youth across the state to the Vikings early to hopefully add more fans to the fold.
"We don't want to [assume that] each child from Minnesota is going to choose the Vikings," Clemens said, "but we hope that by providing these fun opportunities for them to engage with the organization, we hope to have long-term Vikings fans who maybe otherwise wouldn't have been."
Kristin Teagarden is a fifth-grade teacher at Rosemount Elementary and described the event's impact.
"We were very excited because it was a free field trip, which makes it easier for us as administration," Teagarden said. "Also, due to COVID, these kids haven't been on a field trip, probably, since second grade. So it was really exciting just to get an opportunity. It's in Eagan, which is close for us, and we were excited that there was a variety of activities."
Crestview Elementary fifth-grade teacher Reid Tschumperlin expressed similar sentiments as he watched some of his students participate in the obstacle course.
"Our principal shared this opportunity with us, and we were super excited to do it. We came not really knowing what was going to happen exactly, so the kids were excited about it but were like, 'What's gonna happen? How's it gonna work?' " Tschumperlin laughed. "And we said, 'I don't know. We're just going to go find out.' "
Tschumperlin said he'd been "a little worried" about some of his students who, because they're not specifically sports-focused, showed some hesitation.
Any of that hesitation turned to happiness, though, when the young people departed buses and saw the array of fun options.
"We used to go on lots of field trips, and that went down to basically nothing. The kids were excited to go on a real field trip."
Clemens said the Vikings initially started talking about the field day idea in 2019, but the global pandemic put plans on hold.
Being able to now bring the concept to life was incredibly rewarding, he noted.
"We opened up this Play 60 Field Day as an opportunity to get kids active for 60 minutes, encouraging them to fuel up and eat nutritious foods through our partner, Midwest Dairy, and everything they bring to the program," Clemens said. "We're happy to be able to provide this opportunity for students to get out of school, enjoy the nice day and get active. We definitely appreciate that we're able to offer these things again."