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Before-school Gym Builds Bodies and Brainpower


In a game of real-life Hungry, Hungry Hippos, middle school students wheeled out on scooters to grab tennis balls from a basket.

Before that, the 40 fifth- and sixth-graders had spent nearly an hour involved in fun, fast exercises like push-up relays and running races. It was just before 8 a.m. and students soon headed to class energized and focused.

Helping students achieve in school by adding more exercise to the day is the goal of the national Build Our Kids’ Success program, recently started as a physical education club led by teacher Brandon Witherspoon. Students come to school early three times a week for activities that challenge their bodies and brains.

Witherspoon, who’s worked as a physical education teacher for five years, started the club because he felt students weren’t getting enough exercise in gym just once a week. He worried there wouldn’t be enough interest, but instead he has a waiting list of students who want to come to school early to get in extra gym time.

“I figured, what better way to get kids more active than to have some time in the morning?” he said.

Fifth-grader Liza Lamar cools down
Fifth-grader Liza Lamar cools down

Lifelong Benefits of Exercise

BOKS was started in 2009 in Natick, Massachusetts, and was based on the work of Dr. John Ratey, of Harvard Medical School, author of the book “Spark,” about the positive correlation between exercise, academic performance and behavior issues. Studies show that exercise optimizes brain function and improves your mind’s alertness, relieves symptoms related to attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, addiction and aging, as well as diabetes and obesity, according to the website based on Ratey’s work.

♥In 2010, BOKS became a signature initiative of The Reebok Foundation, and it has been implemented in more than 1,200 schools in 48 states and six countries.

Witherspoon follows the BOKS format, starting with free play and socialization and followed by warm-up, a running-related activity, a skill of the week, like squats or push-ups, and a game to cool down.

The program also focuses on character traits. Each week a student is named a “BOKS Kid of the Week” for being friendly, showing good effort, having a great attitude and being a team player. Witherspoon rewards them with a certificate that says, “Your feet did a feat,” and a submarine sandwich gift card.

Fifth-grader Sharon Garcia said the program gets her ready for the school day.

“I like it because it wakes me up in the morning,” she said. “BOKS actually helped me get better grades.”

Fifth-grader Liza Lamar, who received a BOKS Kid of the Week certificate, attributes BOKs to helping her stay focused in writing, because push ups have strengthened her hands.

Physical education teacher Brandon Witherspoon uses research from Dr. John Ratey, of Harvard Medical School, in his classes and club, BOKS
Physical education teacher Brandon Witherspoon uses research from Dr. John Ratey, of Harvard Medical School, in his classes and club, BOKS

“When I wrote before, my hands would get really tired, but basketball in the morning and push-ups helps me write,” she said.

Witherspoon’s approach to physical eduction is to incorporate activities that everyone can do, without singling out star athletes.

“People thing PE is all about sports but, no, I try to teach them individuality, creativity and to be themselves,” he said. “This is a subject you can use your entire life.”

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The Story Behind BOKS

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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