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Boston schoolchildren fight obesity at BU gyms

On a cold, windy February morning, a bus pulls into the Boston University Track and Tennis Center parking lot, and 50 boisterous third-graders tumble out. The children are from the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in Brighton, Mass., and each week, they come to the BU campus to run, play, throw, catch, dodge, jump, skip, and slide.

For the past 35 years, students from Boston public schools have taken part in the School of Education’s Tuesday-Thursday Physical Education Program. Founded in 1972 by John Cheffers, an SED professor emeritus, the program is recognized internationally for its unconventional teaching and learning environment. It also is one of BU’s longest-running community service initiatives involving the city of Boston.

When a school district needs to cut its budget, one of the first programs targeted is often physical education. And yet, with obesity rates among elementary school children hovering at 30 percent, it is more important than ever to engage students in physical activities, says Eileen Sullivan, an SED clinical assistant professor and coordinator of the school’s Physical Education, Health Education, and Coaching Program.

SED is doing just that. Twice a week every semester, graduate students from the Physical Education Program teach three 45-minute classes to children in kindergarten through fifth grade. But the kids don’t play traditional phys-ed games like soccer or basketball. “Too often, team sports discourage children from physical activity by fostering rivalry and low self-esteem,” says Sullivan, the program coordinator. “Our goal is to encourage movement, not competitiveness.”

Instead, children participate in activities that improve their motor skills, promote team-building, and — more important — keep them moving all the time. “There’s no standing in line while waiting for a turn to swing the bat,” Sullivan says. “The children are moving from the moment they get here until they leave.”

Upon arrival, the students fling their jackets in a corner and are ushered to the track by graduate students Kate Goldring (SED’08) and Stephanie McNamara (SED’07). They run one lap — the equivalent of an eighth of a mile — before converging on the tennis courts, where they are split into groups.

Goldring instructs half her students to sit in a circle, while the others stand inside. Those seated roll rubber balls toward the students in the center, who must avoid being tagged by dodging or jumping over the balls. If they are hit, they must sit down.

Meanwhile, McNamara gives her students foam balls and plastic paddles and challenges them to hit the balls as many times as possible without allowing them to touch the floor. Delighted shrieks fill the gymnasium as the children play.

While Sullivan oversees the administrative details of the Tuesday-Thursday program, a doctoral student typically is the director. For the past two years, Emily Clapham (SED’08), who is enrolled in the teaching and curriculum sequence, has managed the program. “I’ve always been interested in why people exercise and move,” she says.

Clapham originally studied physical activity patterns among adolescent females, but she later switched her focus to younger children because, she explains, “the habits you develop during elementary school typically establish your physical activity patterns in adulthood.”

Clapham also implemented the TECH HEARTS program, which involves teaching fourth- and fifth-grade students how to use heart monitors and pedometers. “By using this technology,” she says, “the students learn how to assess their exercise levels.”

When the fifth-graders arrive, they measure their heart rates before and after running the length of the track. Afterward, Goldring and McNamara lead them in a game of tag. If tagged, they must do five push-ups. Every few minutes, McNamara tells them to check their heart rates. “Has your heart rate gone up?” she asks. “How much higher is it from when you started running?”

Hamilton fifth-grade teacher Laura Townsend is enthusiastic about the Tuesday-Thursday program’s promotion of good health. “Thanks to computers and television,” she says, “children are a lot more sedentary than when I started teaching 17 years ago. For some students, this is the only opportunity they have to run and play.”

“I always say that the Track and Tennis Center is a perfect nontraditional setting for teaching a nontraditional program,” Sullivan says, nodding toward the children. “Just look at how happy they are.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.