Feature

No more couch potatoes

Catherine A. Cocchio
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It’s spring and the playground at Chatham’s Queen Elizabeth II School is alive with the steady beat of jump ropes slapping the asphalt and the sounds of kids repeating age-old chants: “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…”

Once infected with spring fever, students often struggle to maintain their focus on indoor learn- ing.  That  is,  unless  they  happen  to  attend  a school like Queen Elizabeth II, where daily activity is part of every timetable. The school won the Ophea 2005 School Community Award.

The entire school focuses on promoting health- ier  lifestyles through  increased  physical  activity and better nutrition. It is one of five schools piloting an I Can Be Healthy program sponsored by the local health unit and  other community partners. As part of this focus, the school is reintroducing  old-fashioned  playground  games. It is also replacing chips and pop sold outside the gym  during  nutrition  breaks,  with  healthier choices including cheese, yogurt, ice cream, pick- les, granola bars, chocolate milk and juice.

“Hammering home the idea of living healthier lifestyles sums up  the program in a  nutshell,” says physical education teacher, Dave Allin. “Any- thing that can get kids more active is beneficial. I’d definitely  recommend the program to other schools.”

Each class has two 40-minutes physical education classes in its timetable. That and the comprehensive  intramural program mean the gym is seldom quiet. Allin, one of the driving forces behind  the  Queen  Elizabeth  II  program,  co- ordinates an extensive list of intramural activities such as dodge ball, crab soccer, flag football, soccer, basketball, volleyball and floor hockey. He also oversees numerous school teams.

Classroom teachers wondered how they would squeeze the 20 minutes of daily activity mandated by the province  into timetables already jammed with core subjects, EQAO test preparation, anti-bullying programs, and a variety of health and safety lessons. But, notes Allin,“everything went pretty smoothly. Staff was receptive to time slots allotted to their classes for activity periods and worked their schedules around it.”

Twice a week, on days when there are no regular phys. ed. classes, all three intermediate classes go outside together for 40 minutes just before the first nutrition break. (Queen Elizabeth II operates on balanced day).

Teachers join in, modelling sportsmanship while helping build school spirit. They try to vary activities, keeping at least three choices such as basket- ball, touch football and dodge ball available at once. Some days, they walk the perimeter of the yard, or follow a route through the neighbourhood.

“The fun factor is really important,” comments Grade 8 teacher Matt Coatsworth. “One of the favourite games is dodge ball. Students keep score by the number of times they hit the teacher with the ball. It adds a special challenge to the game.”

“Students are more productive in class. We have 40 minutes to do what we would otherwise accomplish in 60 minutes. We don’t look at it as miss- ing time from math, science or French so much as having more efficient time,” Coatsworth points out.

Students themselves have noticed a change. “I used to play a lot of vid- eos,” said Aaron L’Ecuyer, a Grade 8 student leader. “Since I joined teams, I’d rather be outside when it’s warm. In the winter I go to the Y. If I see someone standing alone, I try to ask them to join in or encourage them to do something like shoot hoops.”

The kids do lots of things that don’t necessarily involve skill or have a connection to a sport. Supervising teachers must constantly keep moving to avoid bouncing, rolling and flying balls of all sizes, turning ropes, and run- ning or jumping children playing games like hopscotch, tag and grounder.

Principal Deanna Blain says that not all the activity has to be organized by adults. “Learning how to make their own games is important. We’re painting games like hopscotch and four square on the asphalt. We’re giving booklets with game suggestions to the staff so they can introduce the games to the children.”

Grade 6 teacher, Beth Haddock  has noticed  that “There are not a lot of children complaining that they don’t know what to do any more. Boys and girls play together.” When bad weather prevented Haddock’s class from going outside for their activity break, she introduced a Tae Bo video.

For this activity students find their own space

between desks in the classroom. The only rule seems to  be  not  to  knock  over  any  plants  as they  work  up   a   sweat  following  their  video leader. “Students are more attentive after activity. They’re ready to settle and do some work at their books,” observes Haddock.

“I think the activity makes us want to go out- side and do more stuff like walk. After school I’d rather shoot hoops with friends than stay inside,” notes  Mathew  Willder,  who  is  in  Haddock’s class.

Primary division  classes each  use  an  empty classroom on indoor activity days to work out with two,10-minute Fit Kids video clips. Follow- ing instructions on the exercise video tapes not only  provides  physical  activity,  but  also  helps develop listening skills needed for EQAO testing. “We don’t look at the exercise requirement as an inconvenience, but as a benefit to the whole day,” remarks Grade 3 teacher, Sharron Myers.

Avery Case, one of her students, says he likes getting  energized! “Sitting  is  hard  work.  Kids need to wiggle. I don’t like being called a couch potato.” Fellow student Alyssa Withington adds: “When I play school, I’m the gym teacher and we do exercises that build muscles and get ready to do sports. I like to skip, ride my bike, climb on the monkey bars and play grounder.”

Kindergarten students get 10 minutes of exer- cise daily wherever it fits into their flexible sched- ule.  Here,  the  biggest  problem  is  controlling the excitement factor. According to JK teacher, Kristin Vandersluis,  “It’s easier to handle when there’s an EA in the room.”

Dave Allin observes that there are “two kids in particular with remarkable changes in body size from last year to this. Maybe it’s just that they’re growing, but there is positive change. The kids seem more in tune with their bodies and under- stand that change is possible.”

“It  would be  interesting to  look  at  data on office  visits,” comments  Vice Principal,  Byron Hodgson. “I suspect there are fewer issues on the yard, partly because of intramurals.”

In the end, administrators won’t need statistics to judge the success of the program. All they’ll have to do is listen to students at play in the yard: “Five potato, six potato, COUCH POTATO NO MORE!”