Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 25, 2013

Teachers inspiring students to get 'Fit for Life'

Fitness project helps pair of Boulevard teachers win contest.

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Two Boulevard Elementary teachers have grand plans to transform the health of their school with vegetable gardens, cooking competitions, “Dance Dance Revolution” and walking clubs.

“We’re passionate about wellness and the health of our kids,” kindergarten teacher Hether Darnell said.

Their projects cost money, though.

So for years now, Darnell and physical education teacher Ann Ligocki have been applying for grants to set their plans in motion.

And in the past week, they’ve reaped the rewards.

On Tuesday, the teachers found out their project “Fit for Life: Inspiring Healthy Choices” won them the ING Unsung Heroes competition — an award that comes with a $2,000 prize and a chance to compete for even more money.

Their project and 99 others across the nation will be judged in the coming month. The top three in the country will receive cash prizes of $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000.

The idea behind “Fit for Life” is to transform the classroom and schoolyard into a hands-on learning environment, where developing healthy lifestyle habits are equally as important as academic achievement.

The teachers will use the $2,000 they just won to buy pedometers for every student in the school. They will be used as a tool to support and increase daily physical activity.

For some students, this tool will make all the difference in the world, Ligocki said.

“We have kids who won’t run, but with the pedometers, they just keep moving,” she said. “They see the numbers clicking.”

If the teachers win the $5,000 prize, they will expand the program beyond the classroom. They’ll create raised-bed vegetable gardens, with each grade level taking responsibility for one of six beds. They’ll bring nutritionists and high school culinary arts students in to teach their kids about healthy eating. That will culminate with school-wide cooking competitions, Darnell said.

The $10,000 prize would allow them to develop a resource room complete with “Dance Dance Revolution” equipment and Wii Fit games to give kids a way to be active even when poor weather keeps them inside for recess.

“This creative approach takes technology, which is a draw and a culprit of stationary behavior, and turns it into the solution,” ING U.S. said in a statement.

And if they win the grand prize, Darnell and Ligocki will use the $25,000 to put a half-mile track outside the school, complete with 16 different fitness stations, they said.

But even if they don’t win the big money, the pair plans to put in a quarter-mile grass track so they can start a walking club for students and their families.

Walking or running is something people can do for the rest of their lives, Ligocki said. It takes no money, she said.

Ligocki has been an educator for 30 years. A decade ago, she didn’t have to start teaching kids about exercise and healthy eating until middle or high school.

All little kids went outside and played every day, she said. That was a given then, but it isn’t anymore.

“Now we have to target them in elementary school,” she said. “We have elementary school students who are overweight.”

She and Darnell want to reverse that trend.

And kids will willingly follow if you lead them to healthier habits, they said. They feel obligated to do just that.

Boulevard Elementary School Principal Dave Buckalew said healthier kids make better students.

“Children live a very sedentary lifestyle today,” he said. “But movement and exercise give them energy. That helps them focus in school.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.