SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — As groups of students pushed each other on a tire swing, fired basketballs at a hoop or bounced each other out of the four square court on a recent Thursday, several followed a solid white line along the perimeter of the Eugene Field Elementary School playground.
Four fifth-graders linked arms as they walked, taking turns pretending to be blind.
“You just close your eyes and somebody holds your hand and you walk around the playground,” Grace Hudelson explained.
Simon Nelsen, a fourth-grader, ran laps through a light, chilly rain until the principal called the students inside because of inclement weather.
“It’s a good way to lose weight, and I like to do it with my best friends,” he said.
Last year, he played kickball, soccer or four square during his 15-minute breaks. But this year, “usually, I just run the whole recess.”
Eugene Field is one of several Sioux Falls elementary schools encouraging students to walk or run during recess or before or after school in an effort to promote a healthy and active lifestyle. Gym teachers hand out chains to each student, and they earn foot-shaped charms whenever they reach mileage benchmarks.
Fifth-grader Simon Krikke said he earned maybe a dozen charms early in the year by running during recess. “I like running and the prizes,” he said, but he since has moved on to playing football.
It’s a stated goal for the school district that all students “improve their activity and well-being in order to demonstrate a healthy lifestyle.” In their improvement plans, each school listed their efforts to meet that goal.
Eugene Field Principal Ann Davis said the line was painted on the playground before the year to give students another option for being active.
“When we’re physically active, we learn better,” she said.
Renberg Elementary is trying the same walking program this year. Principal Patricia Pannell said 106 out of their 190 students have walked enough to earn at least one charm.
“The kids just love the tokens. They get really excited when they get to add one,” she said.
Cleveland Elementary is promoting walking too, with a before-school running club twice a week and maps in the gymnasium charting the students’ and staff’s progress toward walking the equivalent of the length of the United States. Principal Anne Williams said the students have been more committed than the staff.
“We’re good for a while, but then you kind of slack off,” she said.
Several other schools participate in Girls on the Run, the national non-profit that trains girls for 5K runs while building self-esteem. And two schools, Horace Mann and Anne Sullivan, are working with Sanford Health to pilot Fit Clubs for girls in grades 4 and 5.
Once a week, Fit Club girls learn about proper nutrition and try a variety of exercises, such as the dance fitness program Zumba.
“It’s gone over so well,” Horace Mann Principal Tara Eckstaine said.
Besides the clubs and walking incentives, the school district revised its physical education curriculum two years ago to focus on individual fitness activities instead of team sports. Meanwhile, 10 Sioux Falls elementary schools are participating this year in a federally funded program that gives kids fresh fruit and vegetable snacks daily.
The district saw modest improvement last year on student fitness tests for elementary school students.
The percentage who scored in the healthy fitness range for body composition ticked up to 66 from 65 the previous year, and those in the healthy zone for aerobic capacity — based on an endurance running test — went from 92 to 93 percent.