Healthy Schools

Boosting movement in the classroom

Chris Strater may look like she’s just hopping around the room, patting various body parts and striking different poses while singing a song about somebody named Tony Chestnut and the people he knows:

PE teacher Chris Strater, right, coaches some Aurora elementary teachers on ways to get more physical movement into their classrooms.

Eileen, Neil, Pat, Bob, Russell and Skip.

And she and the Aurora teachers prancing around with her are, in fact, getting a good workout. Their blood is pumping, their arms and legs are moving, and they’re clearing their heads to better concentrate on the academic stuff they’ve been absorbing all morning.

But Strater, a physical education teacher at Clyde Miller P-8 in Aurora, insists the exercise isn’t just about physical activity. It’s also about homophones – words that are pronounced alike, but have different meanings.

So having youngsters act out a song about Tony Chestnut (toe, knee, chest, nut) who knows (nose) Eileen (lean to the left) and Neil (kneel) and Pat (pat your shoulder) and Bob (nod your head up and down) and Russell (wiggle your legs) and Skip (skip) teaches language arts while it gets them moving.

“This is my passion,” said Strater, who has a master’s degree in psychology and counseling. “We’ve got to get more movement into the classroom. It’s how kids learn.”

The 25 teachers spent all day with Strater learning various strategies to not only build movement into classroom activities, but to make that movement tie in to the students’ academic objectives. They, in turn, will go back to their respective schools and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

3R Project: Relevancy, Rigor, Relationship

The process – known as “Project 3R” for Relevancy, Rigor and Relationship of Physical Activity – is being funded through a $20,000 two-year grant to Aurora Public Schools from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a private organization dedicated to helping schools put health and wellness programs into place.

Extra resources

Spearheading the project is Connie Fenton, Healthy Schools Coordinator for the district, who wrote the grant and recruited the first group of teachers. She confesses that someone else came up with the catchy title – 3R – and that “rigor” may not always be topmost in everyone’s mind. But the other other two Rs – “relevancy” and “relationship” – are totally what this is about.

“We have a huge need to do more ‘brain-gym’ type things,” she said. “This is what makes children learn…

“The original vision was that we would have all the elementary schools in Aurora represented here. That didn’t quite happen,” Fenton said. “But we just got the grant on July 30, so we’ve really been moving. The grant covered the substitute-pay for all these teachers to be out of their classrooms today, and they’ll go back and do more mini-trainings with the other teachers at their schools.”

School district has long list of initiatives

The Aurora school district has been in the forefront among Colorado schools in its efforts to expand health and wellness opportunities for its students and its staff. Among its initiatives in the past couple of years:

  • Opening health clinics at Crawford and Laredo elementary schools, both located in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • Creating coordinated school health teams
  • Launching the Go, Slow, Whoa! program to encourage students to choose foods more wisely
  • Sponsoring culinary boot camps for school food service workers
  • Adding “Breakfast in the Classroom” programs and bringing salad bars into school lunchrooms
  • Expanding and improving school playgrounds
  • Assessing and tracking third- through twelfth-grade students’ fitness levels with the Fitnessgram program

But the district has also faced a number of challenges, not least of which is the limited number of hours in the school day and the need to boost academic seat-time. Just this year, the district became the first in Colorado to eliminate all physical education high school graduation requirements.

Add to that the new state requirements mandating that all Colorado elementary students get a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity time each week, and schools are left to find creative ways to add activity time to the already-crowded school day.

“APS elementary schools who participate in Project 3R will add minutes of physical activity to the elementary student’s school day without impacting the current allotment of minutes per class,” Fenton said.

And, she said, all Project 3R activities will be “no-cost extensions of current classroom activities.”

‘We’ve become less child-centered’

Carla Muller, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Aurora’s Arkansas Elementary, sees the emphasis on physical activity in the classroom as a welcome change. That’s why she opted to take part in the training.

Betsy Aker, left, and Julie Wilson, classroom teachers at Aurora Frontier K-8, get a quick workout blowing feathers to each other.

“I feel we’ve become less and less child-centered,” she said. “Our objective has been to stuff their heads with as much knowledge as possible, but it’s backfired on us. Our kids are losing focus. It just seems like activity is a way to get them to engage more, and that will boost our test scores in the long run.”

Nick Chapla, a physical education teacher at Aurora’s Vassar Elementary, said he’s hoping the classroom teachers at his school will use him as a resource for these types of activities.

“The data on physical activity and movement and how they can be put to work in a classroom are clear,” he said.

Strater has loads of ideas that she would love to see implemented in classrooms. Like blowing feathers, for example.

Strater taught the teachers to form into pairs, then place brightly colored feathers in their palms. They had to blow their feather to their partner, then do a fast physical activity – turning around, clapping hands, touching their elbows – before catching the feather blown toward them.

“What did you hear?” she asked the teachers after the exercise. “I heard lots of laughter. That makes your synapses fire better. And I saw lots of movement.”

She also preaches the value of simple spinning.

“Spinning and swinging your arms is very good. It helps the brain from the inside out,” she said. “Twenty years ago, when kindergarteners came into my class spinning around, I’d tell them ‘Sit still!’ But no more. Now spinning is part of every class I teach. Adults don’t like it much. It makes us sick. But kids love spinning and it’s good for them.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.