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Dr. Skye Donovan: Getting Kids Moving at Recess

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
“Here we go! No teams this time; every man for himself. Same rules! 3-2-1, go!” shouts Ainsley Worrell, manager of the Marymount University Student Center and, at the moment, coach of a group of fourth graders on the playground at Key Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.

As part of Arlington County’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity, Dr. Skye Donovan, assistant professor of Physical Therapy at Marymount, has led a recess project and study with 100 fourth graders at Key Elementary School. Participation was open to all fourth graders to help promote a healthy lifestyle. Three coaches -- Worrell; Marymount senior Dayana Caballero, a Health Sciences major; and Hallie Rasmussen, who serves with Donovan on the executive committee of Arlington County's Childhood Anti-obesity Campaign -- led vigorous sports and games twice a week for eight weeks during recess. As a result, the number of students engaged in vigorous activity during the coached sessions vs. control days increased from 7% to 40.5%.

Dr. Donovan has conducted several programs in Arlington schools to encourage an active, healthy lifestyle -- leading the exercise/fitness promotion aspect of projects. The most recent, at Key School, was funded by grants from Boeing Foundation, Arlington County, and Marymount. Free play equipment was provided, in addition to the coaching.

Outlining observational results, Dr. Donovan states, “70% of the children said that they enjoyed recess more after they started playing the games, and 89% said that they felt excited about school and being with classmates after recess.”

Dr. Marjorie Myers, principal of Key School, points out, “By the time children get to third grade, they feel that recess is boring. Skye came along with this idea, and it provides them with new games to learn, so they’re no longer bored. It gets them playing with each other and with kids they don’t usually play with.”

Worrell, who has a master’s in Health Promotion Management from Marymount, adds, “They like games that are fast moving and have the thrill of the chase. Kids want to go on an adventure.” He explains, “The games are simple but imaginative. It takes an invested adult who is willing to be the guide. We have to model behaviors and get kids moving.” Another benefit: “We’ve found that the kids are also nicer to each other; they’re not standing around bad-mouthing others.” Dr. Donovan notes, “The children also learn teamwork through games that require cooperation. For example, in one game, they have to lock arms with a partner and run.”

The games -- which include relay races, Capture the Flag (or Foxtail), and Sharks and Minnows -- have been well received by the children. Patricia Carris says, “It’s usually boring during recess. This way we have games. We get to play with friends and do different things.” Angelo Lepore, who says his favorite game is Foxtail, agrees. “We all get to play together, and we don’t argue,” he explains. The most common comment: “It’s a lot of fun!” And that’s what the parents are hearing from their children. Janalee Jordan-Meldrum, mother of fourth grader Amelia Meldrum, says, “My child who would usually just hang out before at recess, really had fun. She loved wearing the pedometer and keeping track.”

When asked if they wanted recess to be like this all the time, 36% of the children said, “Yes, all the time,” and 55% said, “Sometimes.”

And when students return to the classroom, there’s another plus. Patricia Carris explains, “I used to be sleepy after recess. After the games, I feel more awake during class, and I feel like I want to raise my hand more.”

Dr. Donovan found that the areas most conducive to vigorous activity were the open fields and the blacktop, which had basketball hoops and playground markings for games like hopscotch. Areas with benches and playground equipment geared to younger children were used for sitting and chatting. It was also noted that girls tended to remain more sedentary than boys.

She is now analyzing data from accelerometers, which the children wore to measure movement in three dimensions. This will provide the number of minutes of light, moderate, and vigorous activity (in addition to the number of steps provided by pedometers).

For next steps, Dr. Donovan says, “We want to develop a resource website with the games and train staff at the schools so that this becomes a sustainable effort. Most of the games are very simple and variations can be added to keep kids engaged. They’re easy to set up and use minimal equipment. We’re working on putting together kits for schools that will have the basic equipment like pennies [jerseys], plastic markers for the field, and balls.”

Mrs. Jordan-Meldrum is an enthusiastic supporter of extending the organized recess games. She asserts, “If we could do this in every Arlington school, it would be great. The children need someone to organize activities.” Dee Dertke, mother of twins Jake and Jessie, whole-heartedly agrees, saying, “It definitely gets them moving and having fun!”

Now, with school ending and summer underway, parents can encourage their kids stay active.


- Foreground: Michael Dertke (with ball) and Jacob Foster

PHOTO 2 - Camilla Regalia (center) Amelia Meldrum (left) and Melina Sequeria

PHOTO 3 – Ainsley Worrell and Dr. Skye Donovan have the children regroup before starting the next game.

PHOTO 4 – Angelo Lepore tags Coach Ainsley Worrell.