Jennifer Quigley Harris, Rhode Island


GUEST BLOG: Active Kids Learn Better

By Jennifer Quigley Harris, Providence Public School District’s Wellness Coordinator

I was waiting at a traffic light when a group of middle school students stepped into the crosswalk in front of me. It was the end of the school day and the kids were a disheveled, loping pack, laughing loudly, nudging one another and shouting to friends as they made their way out of the school building.  Backpacks hung loosely off shoulders, jackets were unzipped, there were some untied shoelaces.

Jennifer Quigley Harris headshotAs the students reached the other side of the street, several of them broke into an ecstatic run, starting some kind of social tag and chase game with one another. There was an unmistakable jubilant energy surrounding these kids and I felt a strange sense of satisfaction as I watched them speed off down the sidewalk.  It’s as if I had been holding my breath while watching them cross the street and their mad dash caused me to relax.  As I drove away, I realized that just seeing them run and have fun soothed me.

I had spent most of that day inside those students’ school building, talking to administrators and staff about various ways to enhance, support and educate about health and wellness. As Wellness Coordinator in our state’s largest urban school district, I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how school food and school physical activity connects to and has an impact on academic performance, classroom behavior and concentration.  Every day in my professional capacity, I cite the latest research, share national best practices and try to provide the best resources I can for schools in their effort to promote overall good health as part of the school day.

Watching those students come out of school and run reminded me that perhaps what I should be talking about in schools every day is the simple idea that students often want to move more during their days. The traditional structure of our school day sometimes doesn’t take into account the growing body’s need to stretch, to walk, to breathe deeply, to take off in a run.  That learning to exercise and understand the way your body operates is as much a life skill as learning to read and learning to subtract.  In a world increasingly dominated by sedentary screen time, frequent rides in motor vehicles and cheap access to unhealthy foods, remembering how those middle schoolers had a natural instinct to run after a seven hour school day should really inform everything I do.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and dozens of other national and local public health and organizations (including the American Heart Association) recommend that children and adolescents are physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. To help students meet and exceed those recommended minutes, the Providence Public School District (PPSD) partnered with the American Heart Association’s ANCHOR grant to train physical education teachers how to implement CSPAP – or a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program – in their schools.  Implementing a CSPAP is important because it not only looks at the amount of time students are physically active during the school day, but it also looks for opportunities to get students moving through staff involvement, before and after school programs and in family and community settings. So far, seventeen PPSD schools have been trained to implement CSPAP, and this number continues to grow.

In Providence, schools are encouraging additional physical activity minutes through a variety of CSPAP techniques including enhanced recess programming, improved recess spaces, incorporation of classroom activity breaks into K-12 class time, programs and competitions to track steps and calculate miles using pedometers, expanded participation in team sports at the intramural, community and interscholastic levels and broadened delivery of classes to students and staff across a wide variety of fitness and movement skills so that individuals learn to incorporate and embrace physical activity and movement into their schedules for life.

I am grateful for the opportunity I get every day to support the teachers and administrators in the Providence school district who are working to establish CSPAP in their buildings. Although more schools in the district need to join this effort, the programs, initiatives and assessments I have seen so far towards PPSD CSPAP give me hope that more students in Providence will be getting more of those recommended physical activity minutes added to their day. . Although more schools in the district need to join this effort, the programs, initiatives and assessments I have seen so far toward CSPAP give me hope that more students in Providence will be getting the recommended physical activity minutes added to their day. I am excited that schools are encouraging their staff to model and promote physical activity in front of students.  I am hopeful that outreach efforts towards families and community partners about increasing daily activity minutes will help to convey the importance of movement and exercise in daily American lives.

Increasing physical activity among youth is no longer just about battling the obesity epidemic in our country. It is also about developing lifelong heart health, strengthening growing bones, preventing costly and debilitating disease and empowering kids to gain control of their ever-changing bodies and use movement and activity to decrease stress, overcome fear, boost energy and have fun.  If any of those things also help them do well and enjoy time in school, that’s good news too.

For more information on efforts to build a healthier community in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, contact [email protected].

The American Heart Association’s ANCHOR Partnerships Program is funded under the CDC’s National Implementation and Dissemination for Chronic Disease Prevention initiative. The American Heart Association is working to increase access to physical activity opportunities in schools.

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