By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL - Warren County middle school students are getting a little extra when it comes to physical activity.
Thanks to a $172,149 grant funded by the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, about 800 students are benefiting from the SPARK Physical Education curriculum. The Warren Coalition welcomed Meredith Bloomfield as its middle school coordinator to help implement the program, which is geared toward fighting childhood obesity.
The SPARK curriculum is research-based and field-tested, and strives to keep kids moving for as much time as possible during gym class. Sixth and seventh grade students at the middle school experienced the curriculum for the first time this school year, and the grant will allow the program to stay for two more years.
"The kids are changing," Bloomfield said. "They're moving and building confidence every day."
One of the benefits of the program, Bloomfield said, is that it excites both students who might be considered athletes, as well as those who aren't.
Typical sport and game units are still taught in the physical education classes, like basketball, soccer and field hockey. However, the SPARK program brings a new approach to teaching the units, and uses a small group approach to exercise and skill development.
For instance, Bloomfield said instead of setting a timer for 15 minutes at the start of class and instructing students to run around the gym, a "meet in the middle" partner drill is used.
Students are split up on opposite sides of the gym and put into groups lining up with each other so that the person in front will run to the middle of the court and meet up with the other student. The partners high-five, and then do whatever drill the teacher says, whether it be jumping jacks, push ups, crunches or other exercises.
A similar drill is used for whatever unit is being taught in the class.
After stretching and warming up during their afternoon gym class, seventh grade students began working on dribbling as part of their basketball unit. Students were instructed to dribble with their right hand while running across the court and pass the ball off to a student waiting on the other side. When heading back, they were to use their left hand to dribble.
"It's great because the kids aren't even thinking about the fact that they're running back and forth while they're working on the skill," Bloomfield said.
In using the small groups and fast-paced drills, students have less time to stand in line as they wait for their turn with a ball. Bloomfield added that there are times when not every group can have a ball, but she still has them moving in some way.
"There's always a few kids who come up to me and say they're tired, or they can't do it," she said. "But if I hear that, then I get right in there with them and show them that if I can do it, so can they. A lot of this is just getting the kids to believe in themselves."
Bloomfield said research has found that in a typical gym period, students are only moving about 30 to 40 percent of the time. However, if five to seven more minutes of physical activity are added each day, the students can get another month and a half's worth of exercise.
The whole time that students practiced drills, music played in the background. As soon as the first song came over the loudspeaker, it was obvious that kids seemed a bit more excited as they sang and danced along.
Sonja Osbourn, a gym teacher who's been at the school for more than 20 years, said adding the music to a class period has made a huge difference.
"I can tell the kids love it," she said. "Plus I see them dancing during the times that they might be waiting in line, so it still gets them moving."
Osbourn admitted that having taught physical education for so many years made her feel a little stuck in terms of curriculum. She said the changes that came with the SPARK program were a lot to take in, but "were worth it."
"For me, it was just so refreshing to have new drills and warm ups," she said. "We still teach what we used to, just in a different way ... we kind of have the best of both worlds now."
Although not part of the SPARK curriculum, Bloomfield also has started talking to students about making healthy eating choices. She said next year, she'd like to expand on it more and bring in visuals and presentations that will promote a better understanding of how food is fuel for the body.
"The healthy foods are here at school, and the kids know what's bad for them," she said. "I just want to keep reminding them and hopefully present it in a way that really sticks."
Amy Thomas, a 13-year-old seventh grader at the school, said she's noticed that some friends who didn't normally participate in gym are starting to, and some actually look forward to it.
"We try to cheer each other on in the drills and games," she said. "I think the music and the small groups are a lot more fun."
Amy is involved in athletics at the school, and while she said she understands the importance of being active, other kids don't have the same passion.
"I've seen some of those kids actually try, and enjoy themselves this year," she said.
Bloomfield said she's overheard students talking about changes they've noticed in themselves, like one girl who told her friends she'd lost some weight "just by trying harder during gym."
Some students who didn't embrace the SPARK activities were the ones Bloomfield chose to focus on by picking them first to try new drills.
"Usually, even if they fight it at first, they wind up loving it and realizing that there's no reason to be scared of exercise," she said. "Of course this program is about promoting healthy kids and fighting obesity, but I also hope it's giving these students confidence. And not just now, while they're in middle school ... confidence for life."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org