Allegheny Valley YMCA program finds space is incentive to get kids moving

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Students in the Allegheny Valley YMCA's school-age child care program are proving that 5.4 million small steps for kids are one giant leap in the fight against childhood obesity.

They are taking part in the Y's Moon Walk Challenge, a program that encourages kids to walk a combined 2,160 miles, which is the diameter of the moon, in 100 days. The challenge started Feb. 1.

The program, which combines fun, lunar-theme activities with physical activity, is funded by a $1,000 United Health Heroes grant awarded by UnitedHealthcare.

Heroes grants are available to schools and youth-focused, community-based programs across the country to create and implement walking, running or hiking programs aimed at helping fight the rising childhood-obesity rate.

The YMCA is using the grant money to buy educational project and craft supplies for the Moon Walk Challenge, and for incentives to keep the students' motivation high.

The Allegheny Valley YMCA school-age child-care program serves children in kindergarten through sixth grade in the Highlands and Freeport Area school districts. While each child's needs for before- or after-school care vary each day, the YMCA averages around 15 participants at each session at Buffalo Elementary School and 25 to 30 participants daily at Grandview Upper Elementary School.

Program participants have made mobiles, planets and even “moon sand” with baby oil and flour. They also demonstrated the phases of the moon using Oreo cookies.

Students are encouraged to walk one mile during the before-school child-care session, and another mile during the after-school session, according to Rebecca Keller, a child-care director at the YMCA.

The kids also are learning how to use pedometers, convert their steps into miles and track their results.

“The kids have really taken to it,” Keller says. “Some of them want to wear the pedometers all day, and each day, they want to beat the number of steps they took the day before. It's neat to see how many kids have been challenging themselves to do more every day.”

The YMCA has encouraged physical activity in its school-age child care program in the form of open gym time, organized games and time outside on the schools' playgrounds.

But the Moon Walk provides a change of pace, and unifies the wide age range of students, Keller says.

Alan Winter, a group supervisor for the morning session at Grandview, says the program is a good fit for the ages of the children in his care.

“Some of the kids are so physical, they have to be moving all the time,” he says. “They are very enthusiastic to have something different to do.”

The participants at Buffalo Elementary are equally excited, according to group supervisor Kerrianne Mackowski.

“The kids are very excited about the pedometers,” she says. “They are eager to walk around the halls, the gym — they're excited about walking, period. They like to see how far they can walk.”

Students can see the progress they are making with a chart that is displayed in the hallway outside the classroom the YMCA uses at Buffalo Elementary.

Students colored pictures of rocket ships and attached photographs of themselves in the rockets' windows. They move the rockets closer to the moon as they increase the number of miles they've walked.

“The younger kids visualize that they are walking to the moon,” Mackowski says.

Participants can track individual progress by earning plastic “toe tokens” that are added to the laces of their sneakers as they rack up miles. Other incentives will be added as the program continues over the next few months.

Grandview assistant group supervisor Patti Simon likes seeing the children's enthusiasm for the program.

“The kids actually want to participate,” she says. “We walk as a group in the gym, and some of the kids want to take their pedometers home to continue measuring their steps.”

The program is teaching the children about the importance of fitness in a fun way, and some of them are seeing results already.

Only three weeks into the Challenge, one little boy excitedly said, “Look, Miss Patti, I'm getting skinny,” according to Simon.

“I told him that he's getting fit,” she says.

Getting kids fit is the aim of the UnitedHealth Heroes grants.

“Obesity is a critical problem among America's children,” says Mary McElrath-Jones, spokesperson for UnitedHealthcare. “According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children is obese or overweight, putting them on the road to lifelong chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.”

This is the fifth year that the company has teamed with Youth Service America to offer grants for programs that target childhood obesity. This year, 200 organizations received grants nationwide.

“What struck us about the Allegheny Valley YMCA was the creativity of the Moon Walk,” McElrath-Jones says. “They took something as simple as walking and tied it to the 2,100-plus mile diameter of the moon, to get kids thinking about science in addition to obesity.”

Getting children to associate science with fitness will inspire them to think beyond the physical appearance of obesity, and, instead, think about scientific and health-related reasons to want to be fit, she says.

Jill Henry Szish is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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