- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

HAGUE, Va. (AP) - After visiting a group of really sharp youngsters the other day in Westmoreland County, I left thinking we’d all be better off if we turned the running of our country over to young minds like theirs.

After all, these students at Cople Elementary School have engineered and implemented a plan that’s dramatically changing the lifestyles of the nearly 450 kids who attend the school near Hague, systematically helping youngsters trade sedentary habits for healthier lifestyles.

The eight fourth- and fifth-graders who operate under the moniker of “The Fitness Force” devised a plan to motivate students to exercise more, eat better, sleep more and challenge each other to be healthier.

The plan is filled with everything from a special “Fitness Fridays” segment where students and teachers exercise together once a week to student calendars that have healthy goals for students every day of the week.

“If you do enough of them, you can win prizes,” said young Izaac Bojorquez, a fourth-grader who is a member of the group that meets each Wednesday as the sun’s coming up to brainstorm the approach. “You can win Frisbees, different kinds of balls, things that you’ll get more exercise from using.”

Kylie Jones, another fourth-grader on the team that competes in the “Future Problem Solvers Program International,” noted that the group encouraged other students to join them marching in the Montross Fall Festival and at a Christmas in Kinsale celebration where the team set up a special “Kid Zone” exercise room.

Jackson Sichol, a fifth-grader on the team, noted that at book fairs the school holds, the Fitness Force leads students in exercises and other healthy activities.

The group, which picked the goal of promoting healthy lifestyles as this year’s effort in brainstorming sessions early in the year, thought long and hard about the best way to reach kids their age.

They realized that one way to connect with them was through electronics, things like computers and cellphones.

Abigail Kesling, a fifth-grader on the team, said that’s why they set up a website called “Kidnetic” where students can find activities and exercises they can do at home after school, things that don’t require machines, fields or special equipment.

Because each student on the team has unique talents, they divide up the work of implementing their program in a way that works to their strengths.

Youngsters in the group who don’t mind speaking in public go on the intercom to lead students in exercises on “Fitness Fridays.” Others help create the calendars, write up the scripts for different activities and help to raise money.

The group comes up with the funds it takes to accomplish its goals by collecting box tops and selling everything from healthy snacks to brightly colored shoelaces and more.

And though they want their students to get all the attention and credit, teachers Anne Evans and Andrew Woodrow are the team advisors who help coordinate the students’ efforts.

With nearly 30 years of experience in the “Community Problem Solving” program/competition between them, the two teachers are proud of what their students have accomplished.

In the junior division, grades 4-6, the gifted students who take part in the program have made it to the international level of competition 19 years in a row with campaigns like “Buddies, Not Bullies!” and “Reader Leaders.”

The campaign that urged students to be friends and not bullies took the top spot at the international level in a competition that judges the problem-solving efforts through a scrapbook record of their work.

The students - Robert Lopez, Jackson Sichol, Izaac Bojorquez, Shaile Bevan, Kylie Jones, Abigail Kesling, Jack Lahey and Gabby Griggs - think most of the time about changing the lifestyle of other students.

But they realize that the effort is changing their own approach to being healthy, as well.

“I try to eat more vegetables and fruit instead of chips and gummies,” said Jones. “It’s not easy, but I know that’s better for me.”

And Sichol added, “I’ll go for apples or peaches now instead of a candy bar, maybe even celery sticks.”

I’d say the proof is in the pudding, but it now seems more likely to be found in a cup of applesauce.

May the Fitness Force be with us all.

___

Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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