Rocking the gym at 7:30 a.m.
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DAVISVILLE, W.Va. -- It's 7:15 a.m., still dark outside Wood County's Kanawha Elementary School. In 15 minutes, school buses will roll up to the door. Sleepy-eyed kids will spill into the school.
In the gym, Principal Mike DeRose and gym teacher Vicki Lacey are hauling stuff out of a closet: crates of jump ropes, huge rubber balls, tummy scooters. They spread giant plastic bowling pins, hopscotch sheets and hula hoops across the gym floor, creating colorful, instant activity stations.
"Every morning, we get these kids moving for a half hour before school," Lacey said.
"They used to come in off the buses and just sit on the bleachers, waiting for school to start. Now we work their bodies and get their heart rate up. They have fun, then they're alert and ready to sit down and work."
State Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple is encouraging each school to add at least 15 minutes of physical activity a day to their schedule. Kanawha Elementary needs no encouragement. "This school is doing what she hopes to see all over the state," Lacey said.
A former physical education teacher, DeRose is a fan. "They need this," he says, pulling jump ropes out of a crate. "Actually, they need a whole lot more than 15 minutes. Over my 29 years in the schools, I've seen a change in the kids. They've gotten much less active. They're sitting around a lot more, and they're getting heavier. That's not good."
Physical education time has dropped as the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act escalated, he says. "P.E. is getting crowded out of the schedule. We're trying to fill that gap."
Maybe because Wood County has emphasized physical activity in recent years, the county's obesity rate is significantly lower than the state average: 22 percent, compared with 29 percent.
At 7:30, the buses pull up outside the school. Kids pour through the doors, strip off coats and pile them on cafeteria tables. Some head for breakfast. Others head for the gym.
They know what to do. Within minutes, the gym is rocking with bouncing, jumping, rolling, scooting kids. Nobody's telling them what to choose. "The rule is, pick anything you want to do, but no fighting and no sitting," DeRose says.
Research shows that when kids are allowed to choose activities, they get more actual exercise, he says. The kids have choices, within a structure. At a different time of day, this would be called a "structured recess."
Within minutes, in one corner, kids are doing push-ups on a plastic sheet. At one end of the gym, they propel up and down on tummy scooters. On the other side, they're rolling down a long plastic sheet as human bowling balls, knocking down plastic pins.
Laughter and excited talking echoes off the walls, mixed with the thwack-thwack of jump ropes.
DeRose is circulating, chatting and patting kids on the shoulder. "These are country kids," he says. Sixty-six percent of the school's 315 kids are eligible for reduced price meals.
In the center court, a dozen kids are bouncing on huge, colorful rubber balls. To one side, big jump ropes circle. Boys are out-jumping the girls. In another corner, three kids are making up a game with hula hoops and a jump rope.
"I love it," DeRose enthuses. "Gets the blood going. Gets brain cells stimulated! Reduces classroom problems too, you know?"
Some mornings, he says, the kids line dance. Other days, they do aerobic exercise. "We try to mix it up. Last year, all we did was walk in the mornings. It got old, but at least they were moving.
"So we brainstormed over the summer and came up with this program. Everyone's loving it.
"Childhood obesity is a major problem, and we want to at least establish the mindset in these kids that physical activity is fun," he says. "Then hopefully, they'll carry on when they get older."
The kids swirl and drift from one activity to another, laughing and talking. The half hour speeds by. At the signal, kids gather up the equipment and carry it to the closet. Within minutes, the gym floor is clear, and the kids are in the bleachers, waiting for the signal to line up, class by class.
Then they're off, to class or breakfast. Nobody looks sleepy anymore.
Taking a break
A couple of hours later, it's raining outside, so Vicki Lacey is at the cafeteria tables, playing cup-stacking games that causes the kids to cross right hand over left. The clatter of cups fills the cafeteria. "Eye-hand coordination helps when you're learning to read left to right," Lacey says.
A teacher pulls a cart filled with colorful items out of a storage closet and wheels it down the hall. "That's our activity cart," DeRose says. "They're getting ready to take a physical activity break."
The activity cart goes into the classroom, and within minutes, fourth-graders are standing by their desks, throwing colorful scarves in the air, trying to turn around before they catch them. A few are pitching foam horseshoes. Others throw fuzzy balls at a sticky target. They're laughing, having fun.
In about 10 minutes, the teacher gives a one-minute warning. Students put the items back on the cart. "I love it that you can roll the cart in and roll it out," the teacher says. "Then we're back to work."
Out in the hall, DeRose is walking a child to class. "Kids became less active about the time technology started to boom," he says. "Instead of going out to play after school, they went home to watch MTV. And from MTV, they got on their computers and PlayStations, etc. etc. etc. and pretty soon, they were sitting most the time.
"At least at this school, they're active.
"This should help us pull our school's test scores up too," he says. "There's research that says kids do better academically when they're physically active. It all goes together, doesn't it?"
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.