Program to help students burn calories while learning

By Robyn Walker

When the recess bell rings at Centennial Public School, students explode out of the building. Within seconds the school yard is filled with kids who are running, jumping, laughing and playing.

This year, recess is only one of three breaks during which children can work off some of their energy. But next school year, things will be a little different.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced a new program last October that will get elementary school kids exercising in the classroom.

The Healthy Schools Program calls for at least 20 minutes of mandatory physical activity in schools each day, a move officials hope will teach children the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The program will begin in September, but teachers and officials at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board are already preparing lesson plans that will incorporate more physical activity in the classroom.

Naya Markanastasakis, vice-principal at Centennial Public School, says the teachers’ focus is on making subjects such as math and English more active. They plan on doing this by assigning actions to verbs during grammar lessons or by turning lessons into games that get the kids moving.

“A lot of the planning will be up to the individual teacher to decide how they want to bring it into their daily lessons,” says Markanastasakis. “But I would imagine that having some opportunity to get up and stretch and be physically active during the day will help students be more focused and ready to learn.”

The ministry came up with the program in response to the rising levels of childhood obesity in Canada. According to a study by Statistics Canada, 26 per cent of Canadian children between the ages of two and 17 were either overweight or obese in 2004. This number has increased by 11 percentage points since 1979 and is still rising.

To implement the program, the Ontario government is providing the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board with more than $263,000 in funding to get new equipment, provide training for staff and cover any other program-related costs that may arise.

School trustee Joan Spice says the program has been getting rave reviews from schools and parents.

“It’s such a generally accepted idea that it’s not very controversial. Generally speaking, I think people agree with the objectives and the programs.”

Marcia Knockleby teaches at a school in Renfrew County, where physical activity is already part of the daily curriculum. She says giving the kids time to work off energy in the middle of the day benefits both the kids and the teachers.

“It seems that they’re able to focus if they have time to run around and to participate in activities,” she says. “They get along better with one another, they build strong interpersonal skills, but one of the biggest things is just to sit down and be able to focus.”

She also says the program will teach kids to be more active during their teenage years and hopefully into adulthood.

Robert Wiman, whose son attends Centennial, says the program is a good idea.

“As it stands now, when they do come out of the classrooms it’s almost like they’re escaping from somewhere. They’re rushing off to try and get rid of some of that excess energy that they have. So yeah, I’m definitely enjoying that they’re getting at least some fitness at school.”

Teachers and school officials alike say they expect the students to respond positively to the more active curriculum.

Ian Derby-Turnbull, a Grade 5 student at Centennial, says he’s looking forward to being more active during school hours.

“(It would) get more exercise in us, we’d work harder,” he says. “I’d like it.”