At Germantown Elementary School in Annapolis, students receive physical education once a week. Officially, that is.

Unofficially, students are engaging in the same level of activity as their "go-outside-and-play" parents of previous generations. At recess, before classes and after school — and in some cases even during classroom instruction — youngsters are getting workouts by playing traditional games, learning new ones and creating their own spinoff versions.

Germantown Elementary is among the first schools in the area to implement a San Diego-based physical education program called SPARK, which stresses to children the importance of physical fitness, then provides grade-level equipment and instruction to back it up.

SPARK officials said the program began in 1989 as a result of a study supported by the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and San Diego State University. The program aims to reduce childhood obesity and engage students in activity that doesn't involve waiting a turn or being selected to a team.

SPARK officials implement the program through teacher and volunteer training.

Germantown Elementary began using the program last fall. It's not part of the Anne Arundel County public schools' official curriculum, but is used to supplement curriculum at Germantown.

Sara Holbrook, a kindergarten teacher at the school, implements the program during classroom instruction — using tasks such as learning the alphabet.

"We just walk around the alphabet rug while playing music," she said, "and when the music stops, they have to tell me the letter. Midway through the year, we walk around the alphabet, and they have to tell me letter sound. And by the end of the year, they're telling me a word that starts with that letter.

"For kids who would rather sit at recess, it really engages them," Holbrook said. "It's kindergarten, it's a long day, and by the end of the day, they just want to rest and hang out with their friends. But when we have volunteers who come in and run the program, those kids who sit are running around and getting the exercise they need."

At recess, Germantown taps volunteers to lead SPARK activities.

"Our P.E. teacher follows the county curriculum, but what we look to do is extend the P.E. time," said Walter Reap, principal at Germantown Elementary. "The students have P.E. once a week, but there are other opportunities throughout the school day for students to be moving instead of sitting in their seats for extended periods of time."

Reap said he heard about SPARK six years ago from a kindergarten teacher at the school who thought the program could help stimulate brain activity in students through movement, and could also help address behavior problems.

"At the time, it was my first year as a principal, and I couldn't see doing something that wasn't mandated by the county or state," Reap said.

Yet since implementing the program, Reap said he's seen benefits.

"One of the big words we throw around is 'stamina' — how long can students attend to task," said Reap. He said that since implementing SPARK, "I have seen students attend to tasks longer."

Christie Lenham, a Germantown Elementary parent and Annapolis resident, is one of the parents who took part in SPARK training for volunteers last fall. Since then, she said, parents have led activities such as Germantown's Walk to School Week before spring break.

Students who could walk to school were encouraged to do so, and those who take the bus were taken on a "SPARK tour" around the school, where volunteers set up exercise stations.

"They started with arm rotations, and then they went to the next cone and did squats," Lenham said. "Then they went to another cone and did jumping jacks and another cone and did lunges — all before school started. When they came off the buses, they kind of looked sad. By the time they went inside after doing that, they were all thrilled."

Lenham's son, fourth-grader Eoin Lenham, said students play games such as tag and basketball, as well as jump rope and play with hoops. He said the SPARK activity he enjoys most is a ball-kicking game where one person stands on one side of an area and kicks a ball to a group of people standing opposite. The person who catches the ball gets to kick next.

"You get to run around a lot and play outside, usually," Eoin said.

Reap said that one of the biggest differences he's seen at the school since implementing the program is "the energy that it brings to school each day.

"You might not see this on any test data," he said, "but for me, as a principal, seeing students get off the bus, running around the building, I'm thinking, 'They're going to start the day already excited about learning, because they just had an opportunity to be engaged in a physical activity.'"

jburris@baltsun.com

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