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Schools devise creative fitness strategies

Some schools have redoubled their efforts to ensure that all students get daily physical education. Some are building movement activities into the daily classroom schedule. Some are enticing youngsters into extra physical activity with fun-looking equipment or exercise routines disguised as games.

In other words, there’s more than one way to “skinny” a kid.

Physical activity and fitness strongly correlate to child and adolescent health. Yet almost two-thirds of the nation’s youngsters don’t meet the recommended level of participation in physical activity.

Here’s a roundup of some innovative strategies that different schools around Colorado are employing to get their students more active and more fit:

No more chairs in this Parker classroom

Mountain View Elementary School teacher Kate Noyes first brought exercise balls into her classroom to replace regular chairs when she was teaching behavioral special education. She found it helped increase hyperactive children’s attention spans.

When she started teaching third grade, she occasionally brought a few exercise balls into her classroom, and allowed children to sit on them from time to time. Then, last October, the Douglas County School District’s wellness coordinator funded the purchase of 25 exercise balls so every student could have one.

“They have the option to sit on a chair if they want,” said Noyes, “and sometimes kids do need a solid base. But they all love the balls, and I think my class is the one everyone wants to be in because of the balls.”

There are rules. Feet must be on the floor at all times. And while students can bounce while sitting on the ball, the ball can’t leave floor. “My expectation is that the bouncing doesn’t interfere with getting their work done,” Noyes said. “And they can’t be bouncing and moving the desks or bumping into other people’s desks.”

But when they’re gently bouncing up and down, they’re burning calories. They’re also tightening core muscles because of the greater effort it takes to stay upright on an exercise ball.

“At the beginning of the year, their backs were getting sore and they were leaning on their desks more by the end of the day. But now they’re sitting up more and they’re not as tired. That’s awesome,” Noyes said.

“My own theory is that the bouncing gets the blood flowing and the brain active,” said Noyes, who also has abandoned her own chair for an exercise ball. “If their blood is flowing and moving, then they’re more focused. It’s why a lot of ADHD kids can’t sit still. They need to move to get that blood flowing. You can tell the kids who really need it. Some don’t. And for them, just balancing on the ball is enough.”

Noyes also sends home “exercise homework” each day, and incorporates a “daily fitness challenge” into classwork. She wants to keep her students active and learning more and more options for incorporating exercise into their day.

A “fitness club” in Englewood

Budget cuts and scheduling issues left students at Englewood’s Charles Hay World School down to just one physical education period per week last year. That left school officials grasping for ways to insert more opportunities for active physical movement into the day.

Their solution: “Cougar Fit Club,” which is open in the school gymnasium every day during the last period, 2-3 p.m. Teachers can send any or all their students to the gym during any portion of that hour to take part in the “brain-based moving” activities that PE teacher Dale Lumpa has organized.

“We do a lot of activities: cup stacking, basketball dribbling, different ‘spark’ activities,” said Lumpa. “Whether we have 20 students or 120 students, we have different activities ready to go for them.”

Teachers may use the Fit Club time as a reward for students who complete their assignments or do well in class. But some students who are already struggling with obesity come every day, regardless. Sometimes, teachers join their classes in the gym.

The program was launched in October, and initially scheduling was a problem. “I’ve got to give the teachers credit. They’ve adjusted their classroom schedules to make sure they get all their other subjects in,” Lumpa said. “Some send their kids down every day, others do it every other day because they just can’t fit it in every day, but they’ve adjusted their days to make it happen more often than not.”

Lumpa also got a grant to purchase some iPods and portable CD players, so students can listen to audio books while they’re exercising.

When Cougar Fit Club first opened, only a handful of students participated. “Teachers didn’t quite know how to use it,” he said. But student excitement quickly created a buzz around the program. “Right now, we get anywhere from 30 to 70 a day, but some days we’ve had over a hundred kids. The program just sold itself. The kids were having so much fun, they told their friends, and by Christmas, everyone had adjusted their schedules to make it work.”

Daily PE a priority in Georgetown

When you call Georgetown Community School, a charter K-6 school in Georgetown, there’s a good chance Principal Rick Winter will answer the phone himself. The school has very little in the way of office support staff. Or classroom aides.

“I’m the school nurse sometimes, too,” Winter said.

The school is doing without in some areas in order to put more resources into physical education for its students. There’s a 45-minute block of PE every day for every student except kindergarteners, who get 25 minutes. Georgetown Community also runs a preschool, and even the toddlers get structured PE classes twice a week. Winter believes his is the only elementary school in Colorado to mandate daily physical education. Nationwide, fewer than 4% of elementary schools require it daily.

“We just made this a commitment,” said Winter, principal since the 106-student school opened as a charter in 2006. “Our student oath is that we will work together to grow strong bodies, minds and hearts. They’re all interconnected. Unless we focus on all parts of a child, we don’t do as well.”

P.E. time is not just recess. The P.E. teacher incorporates all the state-mandated standards for physical education instruction into the class.

The insistence on daily PE makes for a long school day at Georgetown. Students are there from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – one of the longest school days in Colorado. But Winter counters that a long school day makes reserving time for physical activity especially important.

Winter says the emphasis on physical activity has paid off in better academic performance. The school is 100 years old, but since becoming a charter school in 2006, CSAP scores have shot up. “Before we became a charter, our CSAP scores were 7 points behind the state average,” Winter said. “The first year as a charter we were 3 points above the state average. The next year it was 15 points above. Now we’re 19 points above. I believe our academic achievement is growing so much because we concentrate on all pieces of the child.”

A daily run in Lake George

When the principal asked all teachers at Lake George Charter School to incorporate 10 minutes of fitness activity into their morning classroom routine, Laura Van Loh looked out the window and wondered if her students might not appreciate a walk along the river.

“We live in a beautiful area,” she said. There was already a 1-mile course laid out. So she took her combined fifth- and sixth-grade class of 13 children out for a scenic little walk, which gradually intensified to a jog. Then Van Loh, a runner, started running. And the kids kept up with her.

“Then it turned into running for the best time,” she said. “Once the kids started timing themselves, they really wanted to improve their times. And once they started getting into this, they were so surprised at how much better shape they were in. And they were impressed at how quickly they improved.”

The class record is 6 minutes, 17 seconds, which is great for a 12-year old. Some of her  students are regularly beating the times posted by members of the middle school track team.

“There’s not one overweight child in my class now,” Van Loh said, “but there were three who were quite out of shape at the beginning of the year. Now they can all run. I had one girl who was diagnosed with asthma, and I watch her carefully. At this point, she has no signs of asthma, and she can run a mile in 7:20, which is amazing for someone told they have asthma. It’s remarkable what exercise can do for these kids.”

Van Loh said the results of the daily run show up in other areas too. She said she’s had fewer behavior problems this year, and students seem more on-task while doing their schoolwork. And parents have told her their children seem to be eating more. “They’re not putting on weight, but they’re getting better nutrition,” she said.

Kids’ workout in Loveland

Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland used to provide babysitters to encourage parents to attend the monthly PTO meetings at he school. Now, the school provides personal trainers instead.

“We want to make it easier for families to come and participate, and we wanted to offer healthy activities like dance and fitness and tae kwan do to get the kids interested and excited about coming to those events,” said principal Traci Gile. Two trainers from a local fitness club volunteer their time and keep the kids moving in the school gym for the full hour while their parents are at the meeting.

Since launching the workout program in January, attendance at the monthly meetings is up. At first, only about 10 children came. By March, that was up to 14. Gile said she’s heard a number of students have asked their parents to attend the PTO meeting because the children wanted to take part in the fitness activities.

Gile said the faculty is increasingly focused on health and fitness. Sweets are now discouraged in the classroom, and the school day includes three recess periods daily.

EdNewsColorado is interested in learning more and writing about  innovative ideas to promote health and wellness among students and staff at schools across Colorado. If you are aware of other initiatives, please contact EdNews editor and writer Julie Poppen at jpoppen@ednewscolorado.org.