When it comes to keeping kids engaged through running, this Kanata school knows the drill

No matter the weather — rain, slush, or snow — the 125 students at St. Gabriel School are outside for run club. Their fearless leaders, Vice-Principal Nathalie Roy and grade five teacher Calum MacKenzie, say the kids enjoy the challenge.

It’s only been three years since the school introduced the run club. In this short amount of time they’ve recruited nearly 20% of the student population. They promote run club on the morning announcements and ask the students to sign up in class to get an idea of the numbers; a permission slip is sent home to the parents.

“We make it fun but challenging,” says Nathalie Roy. “It’s not just running in circles. We have them doing sprints, we do all sorts of things like burpees to get them working out.”

The practices start at 8:00 a.m. before school, and runners are split up in two groups: grades 3 to 4 and 5 to 6. They both run twice a week on different days to help the teachers manage the large group of kids. “At first, it can be a little daunting having 125 kids,” says Nathalie. “But it all works out. They’re all engaged and they all want to be there.”

“There is so much positivity going around by the students and teachers that we never have any behaviour issues, “ says Calum MacKenzie.

The practices always start off with a quick warm up and stretches and then they get the kids running for 20 to 30 minutes. The most important part of the program is the variation: “We rarely repeat a workout,” says Calum. The leaders keep the kids engaged by switching up the focus of their runs depending on the day: sometimes they do a long slow run and other times they work in short bursts to build strength and speed.

The morning runs help the students blow off steam and enjoy the fresh air year round instead of being stuck inside all day. Calum has noticed a difference in the classroom as a result of the club and he says his students notice too.

“I was encouraging some of my more active students to participate because it’s nice and early in the morning,” he says. “Both myself and the students recognize that it’s a great strategy moving forward.”

But the run club doesn’t just help the students focus on their schoolwork. The positive atmosphere is ideal for academic, physical and mental growth.

“We’ve had students here that had confidence issues and now I see them trying out for school sports,” says Calum. “You hear them say, ‘wow I can’t believe I can run this far because at the start I couldn’t do it’.”

The students also get a chance to work as team and Nathalie says that they often see them encouraging each other during practice. “They’ll say, ‘don’t walk, you can do this, keep going! We’re almost done’.”

After three years of running the successful program, Calum and Nathalie have tried and true strategies when it comes to keeping the kids engaged and excited about run club.

Three steps to success:

  1. Don’t stay on the sidelines: Running alongside the kids is crucial because it sets an example for them. “We don’t just watch and yell at them,” says Nathalie. “We are participating as well. It really helps them and they get competitive.” Running next to the kids also gives the teachers one-on-one time to offer tips, suggestions, and encouragement.
  2. Variation is key: St. Gabriel School doesn’t have a track so the kids run on the sidewalk in front of the school. To keep the interest and excitement up, Nathalie and Calum choose a different workout every single day. “It’s not always running the same direction over and over again,”says Calum. “The kids love learning different exercises that they can apply to different sports.”
  3. Maintaining motivation: Adding an incentive to work hard is also a great motivator. Sometimes they choose students who have been part of the club for a while to lead warm ups or help other students. They also reward students by taking a small group of hard-working kids off school property as a reward: “We have a beautiful trail nearby the school,” says Nathalie. “So on Fridays we bring 10 or so kids off school property to do a run that’s about 3 k.m. long.”

The program ends with the Ottawa Kids Marathon in May. In 2017, they had 119 out of 125 students signed up for the race. “This year we had kids asking if we could continue after (the race) because they don’t want to stop running,” says Nathalie. “That’s really exciting to hear.”

Teachers can take advantage of the free Kids Run Ottawa elementary school program to start their own run club. The program includes simple guidelines and an opportunity to introduce kids to commitment and results in an active environment.

The program takes teachers and students through 14 health and fitness-themed weeks, with fitness tips, suggested workouts and active learning exercises…and of course, running. Kids track their kilometres leading up to the Scotiabank Ottawa Kids Marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend on Sunday, May 27, 2018, where they complete the final 1.2K of 42.2K.