Healthy Schools

Healthy Kids Club gets kids moving

Elementary schools across Colorado are searching for ways to get their students out of their seats and moving around, to satisfy a new state law mandating at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

Larimer County students at a Healthy Kids Club fun run last spring. Photo courtesy HKC.

That’s something some northern Colorado school districts have been doing for years now, thanks to the efforts of the Poudre Valley Health System, the private, not-for-profit medical hub that serves Larimer and Weld counties.

Among the many community outreach programs sponsored by PVHS is the Healthy Kids Club, a collaborative effort being touted by education officials as an example of what’s possible – and what’s working.

Healthy Kids Club works in partnership with schools in the Poudre, Thompson, Windsor, Johnstown and Greeley school districts to bring them a variety of classroom resources and organized activities to get kids moving and eating right.

“When we started in 1998, we did a pretty extensive evaluation with the schools, mostly in Fort Collins, about health trends, and what they were seeing in their kids,” said Laurie Zenner, Healthy Kids Club manager. “Even in ’98, they were seeing the trends that now are getting so much more press – about obesity, too much screen time, fast food, etc.”

Back then, the response was to develop after-school programs for low-income youngsters, including a series of “fun runs.” After that came short health education units that classroom teachers could use. About six years ago, HKC began devising tools to help teachers add activity breaks into the course of the school day.

Today, HKC offers a whole suite of activity, educational and fund-raising programs for schools. Among them:

  • The Healthy Kids Run Series for children ages 5-12 and the Fit.Teen run series for youth 13-18.
  • The Girls Gotta Run program for fifth-grade girls.
  • The Schools on the Move activity-tracking program for elementary and middle schools. Last year, 70 schools participated in the challenge program, which takes place each February. Prize money was awarded to 20 schools.
  • In-school health education programs on more than 100 topics that align with the Colorado State Health standards. Most of the lessons are geared to kindergarteners and fourth-graders, but this year, HKC is piloting a comprehensive K-5 program at one school, B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland.
  • Healthy Kids News,” a monthly health-focused newsletter distributed to 28,000 students to take home and share with their parents.
  • Classroom resources including “Kids on the Move” activity decks and “Minds in Motion” fit sticks and activity cards that offer suggestions for quick exercises that can be done right in the classroom. So far, the decks and sticks are in use in nearly 1,000 classrooms.
  • Weekly after-school programs for children in two low-income neighborhoods in Fort Collins and Loveland.

Relationship with schools is key

“I think we’re pretty unique,” said Anne Genson, Healthy Kids Club education coordinator.

“I don’t know of another health system who has any kind of program like this. Others may have pieces, but we have a comprehensive approach to working with schools. And since we’ve been working with them so long now, that relationship is really key.”

Teachers praise Healthy Kids Club, saying it’s a pretty painless way to up the level of physical activity for students.

“Every P.E. teacher I come across, I tell them this is a no-brainer,” said Mike Pappas, physical education teacher at Letford Elementary in Johnstown. “The resources are free.”

At Letford, teachers have added more and more HKC programs each year. The past two years, they’ve participated in the Schools on the Move challenge, which provides t-shirts and prizes to students and schools for keeping activity and nutrition logs, and for encouraging their parents and siblings to join them in exercise.

“It’s a great awareness program to get the kids to exercise outside of school,” Pappas said. “Any day you come to school, you’ll see kids wearing their Schools on the Move t-shirts. It’s just a real positive.”

Nancy West, a P.E. teacher at three small schools in rural Larimer County, spends only half a day each week at the schools. Since more frequent P.E. isn’t possible for those schools, she’s provided classroom teachers with a number of HKC materials to promote in-classroom activity.

“Teachers may start a lesson off with an activity break. It gets the kids out of their chairs and ready to learn, especially if they’re starting to get a little antsy,” West said.

“The breaks only take two or three minutes. The kids might use their desks to do push-ups. Or walk around everyone’s desk in the classroom. The activities are geared for use right in the classroom and don’t require any special equipment or space. And the kids seem to be more motivated when they know an activity break is coming up.”

Cutting edge neuropsychology

Chris Hunt, P.E. teacher at Traut Elementary in Fort Collins, has taken his Healthy Kids Club resources to a whole new level.

Learn more
  • Read the new state law mandating a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
  • Watch a video of the Academics in Action RTI program.

Funded by a grant from CanDo, the Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity, a communitywide task force that is largely funded by Poudre Valley Health System, Hunt has built a whole movement-based academic intervention program for kids struggling with reading or math.

Called Academics in Action RTI – building on the popular Response to Intervention academic intervention program – Hunt’s program targets youngsters who are having trouble mastering certain basic skills and gives them some special time in the gym to work on those skills while engaged in fun movement.

“This is really the cutting edge of neuropsychology, the role of movement in helping kids retain information,” said Hunt, a family therapist and a sixth-grade teacher before shifting to P.E. two years ago.

He has devised ways to help children learn reading skills while riding scooters, jumping on mini-tramps, climbing walls and ladders, playing ball, crawling through tunnels and tumbling on mats. It looks like kids playing, he said, but pre- and post-tests have demonstrated growth.

“This is something I’m adamant about,” Hunt said. “This is a wonderful way to meet the needs of kids who have a hard time sitting still or, on the other end, the kids who are very lethargic in class. Movement is a way to meet both groups’ needs.”

In addition to creating active ways to help kids learn, Hunt has taken the activities suggested in the HKC Minds in Motion cards and coded them to match the 2010 Colorado academic standards. For example, having kids use their bodies to form letters is one physically active way to help teach phonemic awareness.

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year


A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.