West Towson teacher takes active approach to students' fitness and education

Even when they're confined to recess indoors because of weather, Amber Varlack makes sure her first-graders at West Towson Elementary School get a bit of exercise inside Room 216 — and continue learning in the process.

"The kids go on different adventures, and they travel to different time periods and places around the world," Varlack, 24, said.

"They're solving problems while they're running and ducking and jumping."

Varlack, 24, was recently honored as one of five National Champions for Education and Fitness for her use of an online program, "Adventure to Fitness," that helps integrate physical activity into the school curriculum.

On each "adventure," the class is challenged to use physical activity to help prevent the world from becoming an unhealthy place.

"They love going on the adventures, just doing all the crazy things and the joke that go with it," Varlack said. "It's pretty fun."

And though the activity is typically a recess activity, the kids frequently learn from the content of the videos, which are projected onto a screen at the front of the classroom.

Varlack recalled one adventure that involved "saving" the Terra Cotta Warrior sculptures in China. Later, she said, they were reading a book about China that made mention of the sculptures.

"It went right along with the Adventure to Fitness program that we did," Varlack said. "We make little connections like that all the time. It's really relevant to what we're doing.

Because of its educational value, Varlack said she's received positive feedback from parents.

"I think the parents love that we're not just sitting during recess time when we're stuck inside," she said. "The kids are getting up and moving, and it really does make a difference in their instruction. They're able to get up and get all their 'wiggles' out, as we call it, so they're set for the rest of the day when they have that activity time."

Varlack learned of the program through a colleague, but her award indicates she uses it more than most teachers.

Five teachers who use the program in each state were named "champions," and she believes the award's mention in the school newsletter might influence other teachers to use it as well.

She thinks that with first-graders, she has something of a sweet spot in terms of age for the program. But even the school's fifth-graders can enjoy it — if they let themselves.

"It's really all about being silly and having fun," she said, "so if they can let go of any kind of inhibitions, it'll be really fun."

Michael Rhattigan, CEO of Adventure to Fitness, said the premise of the 2-year-old Adventure to Fitness program is to encourage kids to exercise and learn. Part of the program's appeal, he said, is that the free program can be used by students of any economic background or fitness level, and it's effective for schools whose resources have been cut or don't have much open space.

"Ms. Varlack is drawing on 21st-century tools to make individual well-being an attainable and desirable goal, Rhattigan said.

But Varlack's class is not the only place where West Towson students are staying active during the day.

Each day after morning announcements, Principal Sue Hershfeld said the students partake in the "JAMmin Minute," when a student leads a minute of physical activity — be it dances or other movement — on the television screen. The rest of the students are meant to mimic those moves.

Teachers also insert a second session of movement later in the day to keep students active throughout.

"The kids really need it, and with the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, teachers should do as much as they can," Varlack said. "This is a really, really easy way to promote it every day."

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