Mary Lawrence waited eagerly for daughter Mia to pass the finish line at Chandler’s Tumbleweed Park on Tuesday afternoon. She spotted the 6-year-old, wearing bright pink pants, among the crowd of other runners.
“Way to go, Mia!” she yelled from the sidelines. “She loves to run, she’s very athletic and she always wants to be active,” Lawrence said of her daughter, a kindergartner at Jacobson Elementary School. “I was a little surprised she wanted to do it, so we’ll see.”
Mia is one of the newest members of Jacobson Elementary’s Running Club — a club that promotes fitness and running techniques in children as early as kindergarten.
The Chandler Unified School District’s running clubs started some 25 years ago, when teachers and staff at Frye Elementary School decided to get in shape by running, said Sue Vant Hof, now a physical education instructor at Ryan Elementary School. Students saw their teachers running and wanted to join in — and a new club was born.
These days, more than 2,600 Chandler students from kindergarten through sixth grade are involved, she said.
As one study after another shows American children are becoming more overweight and less active than in previous generations, the high rate of participation in running clubs is a glimmer of hope for some.
“It helps you get healthy and exercise,” said Jessica Joseph, 9, a Basha Elementary School student in her first year of running.
The club’s premise is simple: Run after school.
Twice a week, for 30 minutes after class, any child can run under the supervision of a coach.
Students who can run 1 1/2 miles in under 22 minutes can compete in multi-school races, too, though many students skip that part and just stick to the after-school fitness portion, said Travis Grimes, a physical education teacher at Bologna Elementary School, who says that out of about 180 students in his club, about 70 come to the races.
The time limit is there simply so students who aren’t quite up to the fitness level don’t get embarrassed or discouraged in their first race, he said.
But overall, the time isn’t the important part of the club, Grimes said. It’s about running — or walking, if needed — to the finish line.
“We have logbooks. ... Kids write in them how far they’ve run for the day and their times, if they can remember. Then we give them different prizes at different miles. We’ve had kids reach 200 miles in their club,” he said.
And the clubs motivate more than just the students. Many moms, dads and grandparents come to club meetings to jog alongside their students.
Running club can also run in the family. Basha student Alexa Stiller, 9, and her older brother Griffin, 11, both ran in Tuesday’s race. Griffin finished in first place.
But both said it wasn’t about winning or being fast — but about finishing.
That’s just one of the lessons students can take with them into adulthood, Vant Hof said.
“They learn to listen to their bodies. For some little ones, it’s ‘Walk 25 steps, run 25 steps,’ ” she said. “They learn about themselves, they learn self-discipline. I’ve had teachers say to me, ‘Sue, I’ve seen the behavior of this child improve since they’ve been in running club.’ ... It raises a lot of kids’ self-esteem.”