Ubin Williams, 7, a first-grader at Howe Elementary School in Chicago, plays on playground equipment bought with a $25,000 grant from Coca-Cola. (Chris Sweda/MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE)

For several years, the kids at Howe Elementary School of Excellence in Chicago had no place to play at recess. The school’s playground had been torn down because it was unsafe.

Then last year, the school received $25,000 from Coca-Cola’s Sprite Spark Parks program to build a new playground. The students wrote thank-you notes to Coca-Cola and as homework came up with resolutions to be more healthful.

School officials say the playground was important for the kids. “It’s all about their desire and need to play,” said assistant principal Daphne Sherrod.

But there has been controversy because Coca-Cola makes sugary beverages that aren’t part of a healthful diet.

“By having the kids write thank-you notes . . . the message to children is that Coke is a good company and, by extension, that its products are good, too,” said Susan Linn, director of a group that opposes commercials aimed at children and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

In response to the growing problem of kids being overweight, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have launched dozens of programs meant to promote physical activity and movement. The companies are encouraging kids to make good choices and to not eat or drink too much of anything. They are also building playgrounds and elementary school fitness centers as well as partnering with groups who encourage exercise.

Coca-Cola has said it will spend $1 million a year for the next five years building playgrounds like the one at Howe Elementary.

“We want our students to be lifelong learners of healthy eating and fitness,” said first-grade teacher Roberta Guarnieri, who coordinated the fitness challenge for Kentwood Elementary School in California, where Coca-Cola built a playground last year.

“This is fun for them now. We want them to realize fitness can always be fun,” she said.

But some say the focus on exercise takes attention away from the role that unhealthful foods play in obesity. A common theme in company literature is finding the balance between “calories in” (food and beverages) and “calories out” (exercise).

But it’s very difficult to work off a bad diet. A 20-ounce soda, for example, has 17 teaspoons of sugar for 250 calories. A child who drinks one soda a day for a week would have to bike 4 hours and 20 minutes to burn off the soda calories, said Michelle Simon, a public health attorney.

What do you think? Is it good that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are building ­playgrounds for kids, or are they just doing it to make kids like their products? Send us your views to ­kidspost@washpost.com. (Always ask a grown-up before going online.)

— Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune