Students from Chapel Hill's Scroggs Elementary School listen to a lesson on conservation as they walk around the park in Southern Village on recent morning.
Students from Chapel Hill's Scroggs Elementary School listen to a lesson on conservation as they walk around the park in Southern Village on recent morning. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

A program created by a teacher in Chapel Hill combines learning with exercise as a way to combat obesity.

By Hyun Namkoong

Walk. Listen. Learn.

That’s the mantra of an innovative educational program that strives to improve educational and health outcomes simultaneously among fourth- and fifth-graders across the country.

Fifth-grade teacher Laura Fenn from Chapel Hill developed the idea for The Walking Classroom Institute after observing her students were more engaged and attentive after physical activity. She created podcasts for her students to listen to while walking as a way to engage them in physical activity without sacrificing time in the classroom.

Students from Chapel Hill’s Scroggs Elementary School listen to a lesson on conservation as they walk around the park in Southern Village on a recent morning. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Topics of the 15-minute podcasts range from idioms to the Trail of Tears to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Students can take comprehension quizzes that are included with each kit and teachers are provided with a guide and access to an online forum that offers additional support and resources.

Teachers who have used the program believe The Walking Classroom is most particularly effective in meeting the needs of non-traditional learners and students who have trouble focusing or listening after long hours of sitting still in the classroom.

Kristy Perone, a fifth-grade teacher at Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill, agrees.

“The kids are so excited to walk, and afterward they’re better behaved and more engaged,” she said. “The program addresses different learning styles, particularly helpful for our kinesthetic learners.”

Finding time

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that teachers incorporate movement and physical activities into their curricula to improve student performance and the classroom environment. Reports from the CDC indicate positive associations between physical activity and academic achievement, cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior.

Taking the time to walk provides a quick boost of energy to students and helps break up the monotony of the classroom.

Classroom assistant Tyler Mintzer helps a student from Chapel Hill’s Scroggs Elementary School reset her player during a recent morning walk. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“The students become skilled in active listening,” Perone said. “And the quick, brisk walks definitely energize us all.”

Teachers are under constant pressure to raise standardized test scores, and Perone said she appreciates the fact that the podcast content is developed to meet national fourth- and fifth-grade English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.

How’s it going?

Internal evaluations of the program indicate that it has “strengthened students’ understanding of curriculum,” particularly among hyperactive students and non-traditional learners. According to a survey taken by 23 teachers who implemented The Walking Classroom program in the 2012-13 school year, 100 percent of teachers agreed that, “Students were better behaved, more engaged after the [program].”

“We are in the process of having a third-party research [the outcomes] of the program,” said Julie Zola, communications director of The Walking Classroom Institute. “The results are not yet in, but the [teacher] responses are overwhelmingly positive.”

Teachers also report that The Walking Classroom program is easy to implement.

Kits cost about $17 per pupil, and The Walking Classroom Institute offers public schools the opportunity to apply to receive a donated kit.

“We applied for a donated set on The Walking Classroom website, and we were fortunate enough to receive a class set from the Michael and Laura Brader-Araje Foundation,” Perone said. “Our set is shared by two fifth-grade classes.”

Lighting a spark

The North Carolina General Assembly’s cuts to public education now rank our state 49th in the nation in spending per pupil, and cuts in funding for physical education classes threaten to worsen North Carolina’s standing as 11th highest in childhood obesity.

Students from Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill get a lesson in conservation while breaking a sweat one recent morning. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Childhood overweight and obesity rates in the state and nationally are increasing in all age groups and races and ethnicities. Fewer than half of North Carolina students report engaging in the 30 minutes of physical activity required by the State Board of Education for elementary school students.

“When used as designed, [the program] gets the typical student one additional hour of activity per week,” Zola said.

Losing weight as an adult is more difficult, and overweight or obese children face the risk of a lifetime of poor health and lower earnings along with the burden of high medical costs. Multiple studies have shown that exercise habits from childhood and adolescence are likely to continue into adulthood. Encouraging fourth- and fifth-graders to take 15-20 minute-walks three times a week can shape healthy habits early in life.

In 2010, physical inactivity and excess weight cost our state more than $25 billion in medical care and lost productivity. The Walking Classroom Institute’s administrators believe that investing this $17 in a student has the potential to save an enormous amount of money while engendering healthy habits.

“Our long term goal is for The Walking Classroom program to light a spark in children to carry with them throughout their lives,” Zola said, [and] that they make the choice to continue to experience the benefits of healthy lifestyle habits and increased physical activity.”

Fifth-grade teacher Kristy Perone talks over the day’s lesson with several students after their walk around Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Students participating in The Walking Classroom program give the program two thumbs up and parents approve of the time their children spend walking and learning.

“Parents are incredibly supportive and happy their kids are getting more exercise. We have several parents who volunteer to come in and walk with us, and they enjoy the walk and podcast as much as the students do,” Perone said.

“The kids would like us to walk more often,” she said. “The kids think they’re ‘getting out of work,’ and they are very disappointed if we can’t walk.

“As we exit the building, students in other classes without the program say, ‘You are so lucky.’”

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.