Normandie Nigh has spent the last 30 years as a hardcore activist for physical activity. She understands the critical role that parents, out-of-school-time staff and teachers can play in engaging kids in physically active fun.
A World Fit for Kids!, Nigh’s Los Angeles-based nonprofit, specializes in professional development to help teachers and others to integrate physical activity into the school day. In addition, the organization offers nutrition education and youth leadership development, including a special program for students transitioning from middle to high school.
One of the A World Fit for Kids! core programs is Physical Activity Leadership (PAL), in which participants learn to lead quality physical activities, track heart rates and maximize space and the use of equipment. The goal is to get all kids in a given class or program moving safely.
“At first, you tell the kids what you want them to do,” explains Nigh. “And then you show them. You provide encouragement and positive reinforcement throughout. And you connect. That’s the most important thing. If kids are having fun and they feel they’re supported and successful, they are more likely to continue [to be active] for the rest of their lives.”
Getting to 60 minutes/day
With support from Kaiser Permanente and Nike, Inc., A World Fit for Kids! is providing direct assistance & training to Let’s Move! Active Schools (LMAS), part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative. LMAS was launched in 2013 to help schools incorporate 60 minutes of physical activity as the new norm. More than 10,000 schools have already signed on to set goals and evaluate progress using a special assessment tool called a Road Map to Developing an Active School.
Nigh shared some of her secrets with Thriving Schools. For example, a teacher who is just becoming comfortable with integrating physical activity into the classroom may experiment with five-minute energy breaks. One way to start is by picking up one’s own energy level while turning on some music or introducing a game, or by leading students in a silly move. Nigh likes the game Memory Ball in which players call out names or instructions as balls are passed to one another in a circle. It’s a good example of a simple activity that requires a modest amount of space, challenges mental and physical agility and easily invites laughter.
As a teacher’s skill and comfort level increases, they can add a variety of tag games and group activities to get kids moving. Trainers also focus on the importance of mindfulness: being attentive to what’s working and what isn’t and making adjustments. That’s one of the key lessons A World Fit for Kids! has imparted to more than 500 Nike employees, including retail staff, managers and executives who will soon be deployed in schools as physical activity leaders through LMAS.
Perhaps the most important lesson Nigh has to impart is this: When it comes to physical activity, everything counts — every stair you step, every five-minute activity you lead, every sprightly jaunt across school grounds.
Nigh never played sports as a kid. “There were no sports for girls in Oklahoma where I grew up,” she says. While raising her own son as a single parent in Massachusetts, she became appalled at the lack of role modeling and positive mentoring available to him.
When schools, particularly in low-income communities, were forced to cancel physical education classes, Nigh went into high gear. Nigh knew she had the skills to fill the void. In the 1980s, she had been willfully swept up in the fitness craze that made spandex famous, and she sought and got training from guru Tony Robbins. Determined to help young people who have had little or no PE to acquire basic physical and motor skills, Nigh began working with inner city youth, training them and providing them with the opportunity to train others.
“Even for a teen who’s never been active, you can take the fear out of being a physical activity leader,” says Nigh. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Teachers who are putting the training to work are conquering their own fears and finding ways to subvert the many factors that can trap schools in a sedentary existence.
On an evaluation completed following the PAL training, one teacher writes, “With more exposure [to physical activities], students have become more fit and willing to participate as they notice their own improvement.”
Another teacher reports, “I have noticed that the students’ endurance levels, along with my own, have increased.”
“Some of the time my students are tired and don’t want to be active, but what gets them motivated is seeing me participate in their activities and get engaged,” writes another, adding, “In the long run we’re all students and we are all learning from each other.”
And as we learn from one another about how to move our bodies in ways that feel good and stimulate our brains, let’s remember: everything counts.
For an overview of A World Fit for Kids and five other organizations that assist teachers, see On the Move: Profiles of Promising Professional Development Initiatives for Promoting Physical Activity During Out of School Time Hours.