Elementary schools across Colorado are searching for ways to get their students out of their seats and moving around, to satisfy a new state law mandating at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
That’s something some northern Colorado school districts have been doing for years now, thanks to the efforts of the Poudre Valley Health System, the private, not-for-profit medical hub that serves Larimer and Weld counties.
Among the many community outreach programs sponsored by PVHS is the Healthy Kids Club, a collaborative effort being touted by education officials as an example of what’s possible – and what’s working.
Healthy Kids Club works in partnership with schools in the Poudre, Thompson, Windsor, Johnstown and Greeley school districts to bring them a variety of classroom resources and organized activities to get kids moving and eating right.
“When we started in 1998, we did a pretty extensive evaluation with the schools, mostly in Fort Collins, about health trends, and what they were seeing in their kids,” said Laurie Zenner, Healthy Kids Club manager. “Even in ’98, they were seeing the trends that now are getting so much more press – about obesity, too much screen time, fast food, etc.”
Back then, the response was to develop after-school programs for low-income youngsters, including a series of “fun runs.” After that came short health education units that classroom teachers could use. About six years ago, HKC began devising tools to help teachers add activity breaks into the course of the school day.
Today, HKC offers a whole suite of activity, educational and fund-raising programs for schools. Among them:
- The Healthy Kids Run Series for children ages 5-12 and the Fit.Teen run series for youth 13-18.
- The Girls Gotta Run program for fifth-grade girls.
- The Schools on the Move activity-tracking program for elementary and middle schools. Last year, 70 schools participated in the challenge program, which takes place each February. Prize money was awarded to 20 schools.
- In-school health education programs on more than 100 topics that align with the Colorado State Health standards. Most of the lessons are geared to kindergarteners and fourth-graders, but this year, HKC is piloting a comprehensive K-5 program at one school, B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland.
- “Healthy Kids News,” a monthly health-focused newsletter distributed to 28,000 students to take home and share with their parents.
- Classroom resources including “Kids on the Move” activity decks and “Minds in Motion” fit sticks and activity cards that offer suggestions for quick exercises that can be done right in the classroom. So far, the decks and sticks are in use in nearly 1,000 classrooms.
- Weekly after-school programs for children in two low-income neighborhoods in Fort Collins and Loveland.
Relationship with schools is key
“I think we’re pretty unique,” said Anne Genson, Healthy Kids Club education coordinator.
“I don’t know of another health system who has any kind of program like this. Others may have pieces, but we have a comprehensive approach to working with schools. And since we’ve been working with them so long now, that relationship is really key.”
Teachers praise Healthy Kids Club, saying it’s a pretty painless way to up the level of physical activity for students.
“Every P.E. teacher I come across, I tell them this is a no-brainer,” said Mike Pappas, physical education teacher at Letford Elementary in Johnstown. “The resources are free.”
At Letford, teachers have added more and more HKC programs each year. The past two years, they’ve participated in the Schools on the Move challenge, which provides t-shirts and prizes to students and schools for keeping activity and nutrition logs, and for encouraging their parents and siblings to join them in exercise.
“It’s a great awareness program to get the kids to exercise outside of school,” Pappas said. “Any day you come to school, you’ll see kids wearing their Schools on the Move t-shirts. It’s just a real positive.”
Nancy West, a P.E. teacher at three small schools in rural Larimer County, spends only half a day each week at the schools. Since more frequent P.E. isn’t possible for those schools, she’s provided classroom teachers with a number of HKC materials to promote in-classroom activity.
“Teachers may start a lesson off with an activity break. It gets the kids out of their chairs and ready to learn, especially if they’re starting to get a little antsy,” West said.
“The breaks only take two or three minutes. The kids might use their desks to do push-ups. Or walk around everyone’s desk in the classroom. The activities are geared for use right in the classroom and don’t require any special equipment or space. And the kids seem to be more motivated when they know an activity break is coming up.”
Cutting edge neuropsychology
Chris Hunt, P.E. teacher at Traut Elementary in Fort Collins, has taken his Healthy Kids Club resources to a whole new level.
Funded by a grant from CanDo, the Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity, a communitywide task force that is largely funded by Poudre Valley Health System, Hunt has built a whole movement-based academic intervention program for kids struggling with reading or math.
Called Academics in Action RTI – building on the popular Response to Intervention academic intervention program – Hunt’s program targets youngsters who are having trouble mastering certain basic skills and gives them some special time in the gym to work on those skills while engaged in fun movement.
“This is really the cutting edge of neuropsychology, the role of movement in helping kids retain information,” said Hunt, a family therapist and a sixth-grade teacher before shifting to P.E. two years ago.
He has devised ways to help children learn reading skills while riding scooters, jumping on mini-tramps, climbing walls and ladders, playing ball, crawling through tunnels and tumbling on mats. It looks like kids playing, he said, but pre- and post-tests have demonstrated growth.
“This is something I’m adamant about,” Hunt said. “This is a wonderful way to meet the needs of kids who have a hard time sitting still or, on the other end, the kids who are very lethargic in class. Movement is a way to meet both groups’ needs.”
In addition to creating active ways to help kids learn, Hunt has taken the activities suggested in the HKC Minds in Motion cards and coded them to match the 2010 Colorado academic standards. For example, having kids use their bodies to form letters is one physically active way to help teach phonemic awareness.
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