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Get Kids Moving

Children who exercise enough are more likely to succeed in school, and more school parent groups are helping get them up and off the couch.

by Jodi Webb


Active kids have an advantage. Research shows that physical activity can benefit a child’s health, happiness, and even academic performance. In these times of tighter school schedules, when some schools are even eliminating recess to create more classroom time, parent groups can play an important role in promoting health and fitness.

In an ideal world, every child would get the minimum 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended for children ages 6 to 17. Except the numbers just don’t add up. School-age children are supposed to get 10 hours of sleep. They spend eight hours a day in school. That leaves six hours for commuting, eating, homework, chores, the allure of television and other “screens,” and those important 60 minutes of physical activity.

PTOs have successfully provided some of those minutes by remembering one magic word: fun. Kids are more likely to participate in an activity if it’s fun. It’s important to keep that element in mind as you develop different ways to encourage exercise and fitness. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Walk to School Day

Many children live close enough to school to walk or bicycle but don’t because they don’t have a safe route, someone to accompany them, or even because “no one else does.” A walk or bike to school day can encourage students to make exercise a part of their daily routine simply by choosing to use their foot power to get to school. Many parent groups help organize these events. Some provide stickers, inexpensive shoe charms, or other incentives to get kids excited.

The Kennedy Elementary PTA in Fargo, N.D., created a successful walk-to-school program by starting with schoolwide education about the benefits of exercise and an art contest about walking to school safely. They participated in the International Walk to School Day (the first Wednesday in October each year). That grew into a Walking School Bus, a national program in which adult volunteers “pick up” walkers along a route and accompany them to the school. Students were invited to a bicycle safety rodeo, and a Bike to School Day encouraged them to use their new knowledge to safely travel to school.

Kennedy Elementary used the Safe Routes to School program to develop its walking and biking routes. The group started with the neighborhood closest to school, then expanded over time. Kennedy also developed a program called “The Walking Bus Arrived” to alert parents by text or email that their child made it to school. The volunteers, many of whom walk to school daily throughout the freezing North Dakota winter, are treated to coffee or tea at school. Volunteers also receive a “Bus Driver Backpack” with supplies such as a roster, first aid kit, emergency plan, reflective vest, umbrella, flashlight, and whistle.

Raise money and build school spirit with the ultimate fun run planning guide

Running Club

If you’ve ever been in the schoolyard during recess, you know that for a large percentage of the children, those 15 minutes are a social time, not an active time. Some PTOs have found it simple to combine the two with a “Walk and Talk Club.” During recess, participants walk (or run) around a designated track or route while volunteers tally the number of laps for each student. Or have the kids keep track of their own laps by, for example, putting a rubber band around their wrist each time they pass the start line.

Setting a shared goal, like walking enough laps to equal the distance from one end of your state to the other, can add excitement and teamwork. If you do this, be sure to track progress on a map posted prominently in the school or on the playground.

A running/walking club is easy to organize and requires few volunteers and little money. Yet it often attracts close to 100 percent participation—no losers, only winners. You can also attract “community guest walkers”to walk with students. Police officers, firefighters, the mayor, and high school cheerleaders were among the guests who joined students at Longfellow Elementary Magnet School in Westerville, Ohio, for a special walking challenge organized by the PTA.

After-School Clubs

When school ends for the day, most kids can’t wait to get moving. After-school clubs can provide kids an outlet for all that energy and promote fitness at the same time.

At J.T. Moore Middle School in Nashville, Tenn., the PTO sponsors a wide range of before-school and after-school clubs, including a girls’ running club, soccer, swimming, and Hula-Hoop fitness. The PTO started with two after-school clubs seven years ago and now has 36, including groups focused on arts and academics.

One benefit of running after-school activities is flexibility. Clubs can meet once a week or every day, last a month or the entire school year, be for just a certain grade or even include parents. They can also work toward a goal such as a school performance or a competition at the end of the club’s term.

Facilitators can include volunteer parents, community members, and high school students as well as experts from local gyms or YMCAs who are paid a nominal fee. Because clubs are such a big part of their school’s life, J.T. Moore PTO leaders budget money specifically for clubs, and although most of their clubs are free, the PTO provides some students with scholarships for the clubs with fees or equipment costs. Don’t let yourself be limited to traditional sports such as basketball or tennis; try yoga, Latin dance fitness, or table tennis.

Family Fitness Night

“Open gym” might bring to mind a group of guys playing pickup basketball. You can attract more families to a family gym night or fitness night by expanding the options, making them less competitive, and offering educational opportunities, as well. (Read “Family Fitness Night Tips and Ideas” to get started.)

Divide your gym or cafeteria into several fitness stations so attendees can participate in more events. Some examples of fitness stations include running laps, participating in a crazy obstacle course, or taking part in a brief yoga or martial arts course. Include education in your fitness stations. Invite local professionals to give short talks on topics like “Packing a Healthy School Lunch Your Child Will Eat,” and offer simple tests such as blood pressure readings.

Give each person a “passport to health” to get stamped each time they participate in a fitness station. At the end of the night, each person who has a certain number of stamps can be entered into a grand-prize raffle.

Although family fitness nights work well independently, they are also a great way to kick off a new fitness program or celebrate the completion of one. Longfellow Elementary had a “Big Month of Healthy Fun” with a daily walking club for students, ending in a night of fitness activities and a healthy potluck for all the families.

More Ideas To Get Students Moving

There are lots of other ways to get kids active or to incorporate physical activity into your events. For example, field day is a popular end-of-the-year event. But who says you have to wait?

Traditional games like the three-legged race and the sack race are classics for a reason—they’re fun and provide good exercise. Or find a twist of your own: One school based its games on activities described in Dr. Seuss stories. A middle school PTO with a very popular field day found that the messier the activity, the more the kids enjoyed it. Especially popular was a game where kids passed small buckets of flour over their heads to fill a large bucket.

One group runs an end-of-summer swim party as a get-acquainted event for students and parents alike. Consider holding a roller-skating night. Set up a jump rope marathon or a pickup basketball tournament. Or use active video games to get kids interested. A video game dance-off is sure to be popular, especially if you get the principal and some teachers to participate.

The ultimate goal is to help kids adopt a more active lifestyle and to find physical activities they enjoy. Think of your group’s role as helping kids find the fun in fitness. If they enjoy it and don’t know it’s exercise, you’ve done your job.

Originally posted in 2010 and updated regularly.

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