By Marjorie Nesin
---- — With childhood obesity rates alarming parents and medical professionals more than ever — and scientists simultaneously tying exercise to increased learning capacity — a group of Beeman Memorial School adults teamed up to inspire a change.
Now, Beeman kids are stomping out the obesity statistics and firing up their brains for learning, one lap at a time.
Kids outfitted in various apparel from athletic shorts and sweatshirts to jeans, sparkly T-shirts, hair ribbons and yoga pants, trotted around cones on Beeman’s grassy field before school Thursday.
“It’s a good source of exercise,” said third grader Sameera Arif after she finished her laps. “It really wakes me up in the morning.”
The running program, inspired by Rockport Elementary School’s similar and successful running club, kicked off this spring. School Nurse Janet Dickinson said she had been hoping to get this kind of program off the ground for a while, but when All-American runner Peter Asaro joined the teaching team as a para professional and special ed staffer Layce Alves, one of Cape Ann’s leading competitive runners, stepped up to the plate to help, the group hit the ground running.
The kids meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings for about an hour each day. They jog warm ups, then stretch out and follow up with a game-type exercise. Thursday’s game glob tag, a team-style game of tag.
Dickinson elected one volunteer to start as “it,” then joined the girl to help chase others down, laughing, jogging and encouraging the kids to keep on moving. Meanwhile Alves led a group of fifth graders on a mile run.
“They have fun and are moving at the same time,” Dickinson said.
As obesity rates hit highs, a state study from Sept. 2012 discovered that 10.9 percent of adolescents measure obese and another 14.9 percent fall into the overweight range. Of the students that the state surveyed in their state nutrition, physical activity and obesity profile, 23.3 percent did not participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on any of the seven days leading up to the survey.
Dickinson said she was pleased that among the 50 kids in third to fifth grade who joined the before school running program at Beeman, many kids who struggle with obesity showed up on the field too.
“I’m already seeing changes,” Dickinson said. She added “A couple of the kids really have some serious ADD, and I was so happy to see them sign up too because it really helps them stay calm.”
As a nurse, Dickinson has studied how exercise can influence children, not just physically, but behaviorally too. She said numerous studies show “kids learn better when they’re moving.”
One of the things about Rockport’s program, under physical education teacher Erin Canniff, that inspired Rockport resident Dickinson to start her own group at Beeman, was seeing whole families exercise together after a child joined Canniff’s program.
“The parents get motivated and start realizing they need to get going to keep up with the kids,” Dickinson said.
She encourages parents to participate in Rockport’s Fun Run one-mile race May 18 with their children, who swarmed Dickinson with vows to participate after she mentioned the race.
A mother, Janice Uhlig, stood and watched as the kids, including her son, ran squealing and grinning through their tag-like game. Uhlig said she has hesitated to enroll her son in competitive sports, but the running program presented a totally new option for the fifth grader.
“I love this because it’s just running,” Uhlig said. “There’s no winner or loser, it’s just fun.”
She added that seeing her son interact with other kids — ones he may not know well — brings her joy, and she noted that some of the fourth graders could form bonds with fifth graders who they will then know when they move up to the much larger O’Maley Innovation Middle School.
The kids are just as happy to participate as their moms are to watch. With limited recess time, kids crave the active time with friends, and the running club satisfies that ache.
“It gets friends together more and to exercise,” third grader Jenna Smith said, before skipping off to rejoin the game.
Plus, it makes getting out of bed in the morning, something that it turns out even elementary kids struggle with, a little easier and more exciting.
“You can get up and not just stay in bed for three hours,” third grader Daniel Zurbrigg said. “It makes me excited to get here.”
Next year Dickinson hopes to fund the program with grants, to pay the teachers who volunteer their before-school time. She sees the already popular program expanding.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Dickinson said. “The kids see how good they feel.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.