Local elementary school program motivates fourth, fifth grade girls to stay active
By Marlena Chertock
Pink pieces of paper with encouraging words lined the bus parking lot outside Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School, where 30 students and 12 teachers ran after school for 25 minutes on a sunny Tuesday.
“I feel accomplished, I feel energetic, I feel alive,” said Samantha Christianson, one of the students involved in Fit Girls, reading off the papers her peers had taped on the running path.
Running around the bus loop has become a ritual for the group, called Fit Girls, every Tuesday and Wednesday after school.
Fit Girls, which started three years ago at the Montgomery County elementary school, offers a space for pre-adolescent girls to build relationships with peers and learn about their bodies and how to stay healthy, according to third grade teacher and Fit Girls coordinator Rebecca Lobel.
“This program is amazing for getting girls moving and having an avenue for conversations about self-esteem, personal hygiene and general pre-adolescent issues,” she said. “The running becomes a secondary outcome in my mind. We’re giving girls an opportunity they would not ordinarily have within the confines of a classroom.”
The students and coaches are training for the Capital for a Day Brookeville 5K Montgomery County Road Runners race on April 21 in Olney, Maryland.
“I think kids need to see a very natural progression of work equals success,” Lobel said. “Training for a race is personal and non-competitive and at the end everyone is successful.”
The program started with four coaches and 20 students and now has 35 fourth and fifth grade students and 12 coaches, according to Lobel.
The resources don’t stop at the coaches; the group has a FitLit Library, filled with books that feature strong female characters, Lobel said.
“When I first heard about Fit Girls I thought it was a terrific means of introducing girls to the importance of keeping fit with the added benefit of showing how much fun it can be to exercise with friends,” said third grade teacher Linda Shapiro, one of the Fit Girls coaches. “I want to help young girls feel good about themselves, both physically and mentally.”
Programs like Fit Girls and Girls on the Run increase physical activity and self-esteem among target audiences, according to Brit Saksvig, a University of Maryland professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.
“Everyone goes to school,” Saksvig said. “By increasing physical activity at the schools, you’re going to reach a lot of kids. Especially after-school programs because you’re adding something to their day that they might not already be getting.”
Working with kids in elementary or middle school shows them healthy exercise and eating is a lifestyle, according to Saksvig.
“When you start young, they get used to being physically active, it becomes a habit,” she said. “You’re really developing behaviors at a young age.”
These programs also have a tendency to create self-esteem in participants, allowing them to accomplish a goal on their own and with peers, according to Saksvig.
Programs like Fit Girls are an important addition but not a replacement for physical education in schools, according to Dena Deglau, a resident assistant professor of kinesiology at this university.
“Programs like this are increasingly important because there’s data that shows four percent of elementary school children are provided physical education and 57 percent are provided recess, according to 2006 data,” Deglau said.
There are persistent low levels of physical activity participation among girls compared to males in American schools, she said. Physical activity also declines during adolescence.
“The strength of these programs is they help close the gender gap in physical activity participation rate,” she said. “And it provides ways of accessing physical activity that isn’t dependent on social-economic status. A program like this doesn’t require a fitness club; they go home and can run with their family.”
Lobel begins Fit Girls with a short speech at the end of the school day as the students eat apples or carrots. She talks about health topics like the importance of using deodorant, exercising regularly and eating healthy.
Then the students and coaches go outside, stretch and run for 20 to 30 minutes.
“Give me an f, i, t, g, i, r, l, s, Fit Girls,” the students often said as they ran, starting the cheer on their own.
At the end of the run, coaches and students lined up with their hands out and high-fived all the runners as they crossed the improvised finish line, the curb closest to the stairs of the front entrance.
“The air is always charged with such positive energy,” Shapiro said. “We always encourage and cheer each other on. The girls hear the coaches encouraging everyone and they encourage one another as well as the coaches. The girls are delighted to both give and receive compliments.”