Never too early for fitness …

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It is 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and many of the teachers and students at Bessie Rhodes Magnet School have gone home for the day.  The building would be quiet if it were not for the music and thumping emanating from the school’s gym.  About 20 students are doing “pencil pizza jumps,” commonly known as jumping jacks, while motivational music plays on a portable stereo. 

The students are attending District 65’s School Age-Child Care Program and participating in a kids’ fitness and health education curriculum recently adopted by the District and funded by a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation for the 2009-2010 school year.  The nationally certified program called Stretch-n-Grow is being taught at all 12 District 65 elementary schools. 

The class is taught one day a week at each school.  More than 300 students aged 5-12 in the District’s after-school program are finding that it can be fun to learn about the importance of regular exercise and a nutritious diet.

“Childhood obesity is a serious health problem,” says Michelle Glick, owner of Stretch-n-Grow since 2003 and one of a staff of instructors that facilitates the classes throughout the District. “Our goal is to teach students how to make healthy choices by showing them it can be fun and feel good, too,” she added.

Ms. Glick, a graduate of Evanston schools herself, is passionate about getting kids moving by using positive reinforcement.

“We focus on what the kids can have as opposed to what they can’t,” says Ms. Glick who spends the class period not only exercising with the kids, but offering words of encouragement as well.

“These kids have had a long day and they are tired, but as soon as they get going I am always amazed at the amount of energy they can muster,” she says.

All the exercises and curriculum were developed under supervision of pediatricians, nutritionists, educators and fitness professionals and comply with the youth fitness guidelines established by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The curriculum focuses on healthy nutrition and exercise habits, but also incorporates good attitudes, hygiene and sleep into the lessons – all of which are equally important, says Ms. Glick.

The students at Bessie Rhodes have been playing exercise games and moving to music for about 40 minutes. It is now relaxation time. Ms. Glick turns on soothing music and the children get comfortable on the gym floor.  The children are surprisingly quiet for several minutes while Ms. Glick describes a beach scene for the children to visualize.

“A lot of kids have trouble sleeping at night,” says Ms. Glick.  “This relaxation technique is a tool we hope they will practice at home.”

Deborah Smith, site coordinator of the School-Age Childcare program at Bessie Rhodes says the kids enjoy it.

“Kids need to bounce around,” says Ms. Smith.  “They feel better afterward and parents say they sleep better, too.”