Story and images provided by TSET Healthy Living Program
There’s extra energy and excitement in the air at Will Rogers Elementary School on Tuesday afternoons. In the gym, kids are running around, talking, laughing and playing. It’s organized chaos, but the beautiful kind. The kind where kids feel welcome, comfortable, and loved. In this environment, for an hour and a half each Tuesday, kids feel the freedom to be themselves and they know that they will be celebrated.
Born out of a vision to see an after-school program where students are encouraged to be physically active, the Will Rogers Running Club provides a space for kids to run, play, and to learn skills that will be impactful in all aspects of their lives. The Club was originally started by Dr. Popplewell, with the financial support of the PTA, during the 2016-2017 school year. Because the group of students was originally small, the students, along with a host of parent volunteers, went out to the high school track to run each week. But when Larin Davis was hired by Stillwater Schools and appointed the new sponsor of the running club, she was given the freedom to dream and to mold running club into an after school program that could reach even more children, while still deeply impacting their individual lives.
After extensive research and talking to other running club sponsors within Stillwater Schools, Larin wanted the running club to reach more of the 600 students at Will Rogers Elementary. To her surprise, the response was overwhelming. In only its second year, 59 students participate weekly. Her next challenge was finding volunteers to run and hang out with the kids each week. Now, on a given Tuesday afternoon, a diverse group of volunteers run and play with the kids, including parents, family members, OSU students, and various community members, who are all passionate about the mission and vision of running club.
Perhaps Larin’s biggest challenge was figuring out what it would look like to do running club well for 60 children, but she was excited to be given the freedom to be creative and to make changes to the program. She spent time researching and brainstorming about different activities for kids that would be fun and challenging, but also appropriate for their bodies and stages of development. On a normal day of running club, first the kids change, break up into their teams (which are organized by grade) and check in with their “coach”, a volunteer who encourages and runs with their team each week. Next, the kids warm up their bodies with various exercises such as high knees, butt kicks, side shuffles, and skips. Their main activity for the day varies. Sometimes, the kids run, either around the school or outside, depending on the weather. Other times, Larin has fun games planned for the kids that are engaging, but still keep the kids physically active. After running or completing the game, the kids do yoga or stretch to cool down their bodies.
Larin believes that it’s imperative to celebrate what the kids are accomplishing in running club. About once a month, a celebration occurs in which kids receive awards and get a healthy snack to enjoy. When they first become a member of running club, kids receive a necklace to which they can add different charms or “feet” that represent their accomplishments in running club. They can receive charms for attendance, leadership and behavior, and for reaching different distance milestones, like running a 5K. This is also a time to celebrate the parents, college students, and various organizations who make running club possible. “This has become a community effort”, said Davis and the success of Will Rogers running club would not be possible without community support.
The Will Rogers Running Club is much more than just a weekly, after-school program. Larin hopes that what the kids learn about physical activity permeates into other aspects of their lives. In the age of technology, where many entertainment options keep kids sedentary and indoors, running club shows kids skills and games that they can take home with them. It also teaches them that doing tasks that are physically demanding and difficult can be enjoyable and rewarding. Larin always encourages the kids, reminding them that just because they can’t do something now doesn’t mean that they can’t do it in the future. However, perhaps the most valuable thing that running club provides is outside the realm of physical activity. This space and time has become an opportunity for kids to bond with one-another and with the volunteers. It gives the kids a space where they feel supported. “It’s a community. They know that they’re valued in running club,” explained Larin.
The future for running club looks bright and Larin still continues to dream big. Currently, the PTA sponsors running club and funds all of the needed snacks and materials, but Larin hopes that some grant money might provide further funding for the club to also pay for their members to enter various races that are held in Stillwater. She wants each child to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with participating in and completing a race. She also hopes that running club will continue to expand their reach and can grow to include even more students in the future.