October 25, 2013

Maine elementary school kids learn a good run is fun

Informal clubs are sprouting up across Maine to help young students get active.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The latest tool for getting young children active is running, and all it takes is a pair of sneakers.

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Students at Sebago Elementary School get 15 minutes to do as many laps as they can around the circular driveway to build endurance.

Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer

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Running clubs for elementary school students are taking off around Maine, boosted by a rapidly expanding Girls on the Run program for third- through fifth-graders and by enthusiastic teachers who are starting informal after-school programs to share their passion for running.

The national nonprofit Girls on the Run opened its first Maine chapter last fall with 12 girls at Portland’s Longfellow Elementary School. This fall, more than 160 girls are signed up at elementary schools in the Portland area.

“What’s cool about it is that if you’ve had a bit of a bad day or something, you can come here and it makes you feel good,” said Sydney Hews, a fifth-grader who is part of Girls on the Run at South Portland’s Dyer Elementary School. “You can come in feeling like you’re in a ditch and then you go run and you feel good and strong.”

Girls on the Run clubs are operating at the Dyer school in South Portland, Great Falls Elementary School in Gorham, Falmouth Elementary School, Longfellow and Ocean Avenue elementary schools in Portland, Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth Elementary School and the Casco Bay YMCA in Freeport.

Nationally, a range of programs have begun in recent years in response to reports of rising rates of childhood obesity, from first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program to the Portland-based Let’s Go program, which has expanded beyond the state. They combine dietary advice, physical activity guidelines and recommendations for teaching children about good health.

According to 2010 census figures, 14 percent of 5- to 9-year-olds and 14.5 percent of 10- to 14-year-olds in Maine are obese.

Experts have long urged students to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but organized school sports aren’t widely offered until middle school and high school, so the running programs are important at the elementary school level, organizers say.

“I love seeing the girls and what it does for them,” said Martha Bolduc, a second-grade teacher at the Dyer school who leads a Girls on the Run club.

Working with girls in third, fourth and fifth grades is important because that’s usually the age when they start shifting from listening to their parents’ opinions to their peers’ opinions. As part of the program, the girls do team exercises led by a teacher, talk about healthy habits and how to be a good friend, and how to empower themselves and others.

“You have to always be positive,” said Tess Tifft, 10, a fifth-grader at Dyer. “Like when you’re passing someone (when you’re running), you call out ‘You’re doing great!’ or ‘Good job!’ ”

Exact numbers of elementary school running programs in Maine are hard to come by, because many operate informally or are after-school programs led by volunteers. Joe Boucher, the physical activity and nutrition consultant for the state Department of Education, said he has heard of several around the state.

“More and more, there’s a lot of interest in physical activity, especially in the last few years,” he said.

Three years ago, the department analyzed the level of physical education in the state and found that the average elementary school student got about 40 minutes, in one or two days a week.

The state doesn’t require a minimum number of physical education classes for schools, so districts can set their own policies, Boucher said. The National Association of Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes of physical education a week for elementary school students, and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students, for the entire school year.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sebago Elementary School kindergartener Audrey Dubay warms up with other kids before running on Monday.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Kathy Harmon leads a kids' running club started by Kimberly Kelly last year and continuing at the Sebago Elementary School.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer


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