The first-grade students at Carrie Busey Elementary School took a break from their reading Wednesday morning to get up and dance.
Their teacher, Noelle Stinson, put on an alphabet aerobics song, with an accompanying action for each letter (arms in the air circling around for A, bounce for B, etc.), and got her students moving.
The class takes a "Brain Body Break" often throughout the day to dance or do jumping jacks or yoga. It helps students who learn best through movement, Stinson said, and it lets them all get rid of some excess energy.
"When they come back, they are so much more focused. They work so much harder for me," she said. "They know I'm going to honor that by giving them another break."
The teachers at Carrie Busey have made physical activity and healthy eating a primary focus at the school. It uses the CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Child Health) program, supported by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, to educate students and instill healthy habits.
This weekend, the school will hold its first 3K run (1.8 miles) as a CATCH celebration.
Other area schools are promoting physical activity as well. Many schools have mileage clubs, where children earn feet tokens for a certain number of miles walked.
The Urbana school district's afterschool program is holding a Wellness Walk fundraiser this afternoon. In Champaign, Westview and Bottenfield elementary schools will hold walkathons on Friday. South Side has one scheduled for early October, and Dr. Howard has an upcoming Wellness Night.
Next week, the Tuscola school district is holding a community walk in conjunction with Homecoming to raise money for classroom supplies and technology.
Westview was the first school in the Champaign district to substitute a walkathon four years ago for selling food or wrapping paper as a fundraiser.
"We were all pretty burned out on selling candy and nuts," said Kelly Hill, president of the Westview PTA.
The walkathon was also a way to build the school community and show kids that being active is fun and feels good, Hill said.
The event has a theme each year. The first year was fitness and wellness. This year's theme is careers and professions. And although it's called a walkathon, the kids always start out running, Hill said.
The CATCH 3K at Carrie Busey is not a fundraiser, but a celebration of the school's wellness efforts.
The CATCH program – which provides a health curriculum, ways to increase the amount of activity during PE, information about healthful foods, and activities for families to do at home – "has permeated the classroom culture," said Wendy Starwalt, the PE teacher at Carrie Busey who encouraged the school to participate. "It's not just in the gym. It's throughout the building. There's not an adult in the building that isn't way into it."
Now, the school is trying to reach out to families. It made its 3K a free event and scheduled it for a Saturday in hopes that working parents could attend. It will include booths with health and wellness information for children to show parents what they are learning about fitness and nutrition – and maybe exert a little family pressure on mom and dad to live a healthier lifestyle, Starwalt said.
Similarly, Bottenfield's walkathon is scheduled just before the school's friends and family picnic, in the hope parents will come early and walk with their children, said Ruth Mininger, a Bottenfield PTA member who is helping organize the walkathon. The school is encouraging children to walk for 20 minutes each day outside school in the weeks surrounding its walkathon. If families begin walking together, "hopefully in those three weeks (they'll) form a good habit they'll continue," Mininger said.
"It's not just about the schools. Parents need to get involved too," said Cherryl Ramirez, an Urbana parent with two daughters at Prairie Elementary School. "The best way to pass down those values of fitness for your children is to be good role models. They have to see us exercising. They have to see that it's value in our own lives."
Her daughters like to do yoga with her. Her older daughter swims, and her younger daughter plays soccer.
The older daughter, a fourth-grader, participated in a Fit Kids afterschool program through Prairie school. The program of the University of Illinois Department of Kinesiology and Community Health provides children with at least an hour of physical activity.
"They do some really fun activities like relay races, jump ropes, hula hoops. The purpose is just to keep them moving," Ramirez said. "I saw some real benefits with my daughter. At first she complained about all the physical activity, but then I noticed increased endurance throughout the year."
On family walks, her daughter would be running ahead of her. "I was really happy to see that," Ramirez said.
Deb Shotton, a fourth-grade teacher at Unity West Elementary School in the Unit 7 school district, tries to be an example to her students. She usually joins them for PE class on Fridays.
"I just did it because I like activity myself," Shotton said. "I saw how it impacted kids, and maybe that kid that doesn't want to run a lap, they were more excited about running a lap instead of walking."
Unity West also uses the CATCH program. Its website lists the calories and amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates in breakfast and lunch selections, and it has a wellness newsletter.
"I feel like it's so important we are teaching students how to be healthier by eating nutritious foods and getting activity," said Principal Janet Ellis-Nelson. "I think this is a perfect opportunity to educate them to be healthy throughout their lives."