Cedar Springs — The sixth-graders at Red Hawk Elementary all have different methods of dealing with stress. Luke Ball listens to music. Isaiah Vega-Lopez taps on the table with his fingers. Raelynn Dells likes to give herself little pep talks.
Now, they all have some additional coping tools to add to their “stress toolkit,” thanks to an afternoon focused on fitness and mental health.
“Fitnesspalooza,” held just before fall break, was an event put together by school leaders to demonstrate the benefits of physical activity for reducing stress and dealing with mental health challenges.
“The last normal year that many of these kids had was their third-grade year, and we’ve found that so many have been isolated the past two years,” said Principal Bill Cataldo of his students at Red Hawk Elementary, a sixth-grade-only building. “Coming back to the classroom is a major change and we want it to be welcoming, but we also want to teach them about different ways they can release stress when they need it, and physical activity is a great outlet to do that.”
Throughout the afternoon, classes rotated through various stations that demonstrated different ways kids can use movement to calm nerves, reduce tension and refocus their attention.
In the gym, Cataldo and teacher Jennifer Craig led groups in spirited games of “Would You Rather.” (Tacos or cheeseburgers? Spinners or poppers? Netflix or Hulu?) Depending on which they picked, the kids then did short sets of exercises like push-ups, squats or sit-ups. In the cafeteria, counselor Ashlynn Howe walked them through a series of yoga poses and breathing exercises. And outside, students got to walk, jog or run loops around the school grounds in the brisk fall air.
Student Kaylee Goltz said she often stresses over getting good grades and the pressures of turning in assignments on time. After going through the Fitnesspalooza stations, she said she learned the importance of “just taking a break for a minute.”
“To take, like, deep breaths feels really good, and if I’m working on homework or a test and I get stressed out, I can go for a short walk to help with that,” Kaylee said.
Classmate Isaiah Vega-Lopez enjoyed his first time doing yoga, which was a welcome break from “all the exams and tests we’ve been having,” he said. “It felt good to stretch out my body and breathe in the air … I think the yoga helped relieve our bodies. I usually breathe with my chest and I learned about breathing with your stomach, and I felt a difference.”
Advocating for Their Peers
The Student Leadership Council at Red Hawk also used Fitnesspalooza as an opportunity to raise funds both for all-school activities and for students in need.
“We do spirit days a lot in our building, and not all kids have something to wear for that,” said leadership council adviser Courtney MacDonald. “(Student leadership members) were concerned that not everyone had a spirit day T-shirt. And so they wanted to raise some money to give back to other kids in the school.”
“It felt good to stretch out my body and breathe in the air.”— sixth-grader Isaiah Vega-Lopez
In the weeks leading up to Fitnesspalooza, council members wrote letters to businesses all around Cedar Springs, explaining the event and asking for sponsorship. Their goal, council member Gwen Alvarez said, was to be able to provide a spirit day shirt for anyone at the school who wanted one.
“We told (the businesses) that if people don’t have to be left out, they will be happier, and if we raised the money, then everyone would be able to be included in things like school spirit days,” Gwen said. “It was pretty cool that they were willing to sponsor us, because then it’s kind of like we have the support of the town. It’s not just the students raising money, it’s like other people are supporting you, too.”
MacDonald, who teaches language arts and science, says there are “a lot of leaders” in this year’s group of sixth-graders at Red Hawk. She’s been impressed by their creative ideas and the way they look out for others.
“When it’s student-led, that’s when you get the best ideas — they’re good at picking projects and deciding on things that benefit the whole group,” MacDonald said. “I think this was, for most of them, their first experience advocating for other kids in the school, which is cool to see.”
At the same time, she noted, “it’s important to take time to just be a kid and play,” especially after the pandemic-related challenges of the past few years. That’s why she was so excited about Fitnesspalooza and its focus on coping strategies, especially as it relates to school-related stressors.
“I hear kids reference things like anxiety and depression more now than I ever did in the past — like, they know those words well and they’re a lot more familiar with different types of mental health,” MacDonald said. “So just to talk about it openly, and to give them some physical coping skills, helps them understand that it’s OK and normal, and there’s not something wrong with them. … If they hear us saying that mental health is just as important as physical health, I think that’s really good.”