FRISCO, Texas — Soft piano music and dim lights set the mood in the kindergarten classroom.
Kristina Cappe, a health and wellness coach at Frisco Independent School District’s Pink Elementary School, stands in front of 22 children, each sitting on their own pink mat.
“Is everyone ready for yoga?” she asks. “We’re going to take our fingers and put them on our belly and we’re going to imagine our belly is a balloon.”
Cappe leads the children in a few deep breaths, then guides them through some basic stretches. She shows the kindergarteners all the classic poses: mountain, warrior, downward dog, tree pose.
When she has the kids arch their backs into cat pose, she tells them to meow as they exhale. They all giggle and join in.
When they sit on the floor to stretch their hamstrings, she tells them to “make a pizza” with sauce, cheese and extra toppings. They sprinkle handfuls of imaginary cheese on their mats as they stretch toward their toes.
“Who remembers our yoga code word?” she asks at the end of the lesson.
“Namaste,” the children say in breathy, kindergarten voices.
The kids don’t know it, but this is not their parents’ health class.
Pink Elementary and the rest of Frisco ISD’s 42 elementary schools are finding new ways to get kids moving and keep them healthy. That means yoga classes, martial arts lessons, vegetable “try days” in the cafeteria and more.
It all works in concert with expanded counseling and mental health services to provide education to the “whole child,” in the parlance of the district. The idea is that all of a student’s classes should work together to promote not just academic but social and emotional learning as well.
That’s where yoga comes in.
“It gives kids an opportunity to breathe and exhale, which sometimes we can’t do when we’re focused on academic rigor,” said Allison Ginn, the district’s K-12 PE and health coordinator. “We want to make sure we’re offering opportunities to all students and not limiting it to what we traditionally thought of in PE.”
Nationwide, more schools are moving away from the kind of physical education most grown-ups remember.
Christopher Hersl is vice president of programs and professional development for SHAPE America, a professional group for health and physical education teachers. Although every school’s PE curriculum is different, he said, many districts have begun to focus more on “physical literacy” rather than lessons on the rules of team sports.
Among adults, the most popular physical activities are often solitary. Think running, biking, tennis or golf. The logistics of putting together large sports teams is a barrier for many, so it’s better to teach kids the skills of healthy living, Hersl said.
“The reality is health is more than one thing,” Hersl said.
In Frisco ISD, lead elementary PE teacher JT Mistr said he has worked to improve PE alongside health and wellness curriculum with help from school nurses, cafeteria nutritionists and more.
The district makes a distinction between PE class, which focuses on student movement, and health and wellness, a rotation class like art or music that focuses on the classroom-learning side of emotional, physical and mental health.
Beyond yoga classes and other nontraditional lessons for elementary-schoolers, Pink Elementary has hosted community fun runs, ride-your-bike-to-school days, health fairs and “try days” in the cafeteria where students are encouraged to taste fruits and vegetables in all colors of the rainbow.
“For most adults, working out is not fun,” said Pink principal Danielle Record. “Now, we want to instill in our students a love for being physically active.”
The efforts have brought national praise and accolades to the school, including most recently the American Heart Association’s School of the Year Award for year-round heart-healthy programming.
“It’s not just PE; it’s not just kids coming in (to the nurse’s office) to get a Band-Aid. We have to lean on the whole process,” Mistr said. “We’re always trying to find how we can meet our kids.”
While a group of kindergarteners in Cappe’s classroom focused on mindfulness, a group in the gym on the other side of the school was a little more active.
Mistr had invited instructors from nearby Warrior Martial Arts Academy to give a basic martial arts lesson in PE class.
The kindergarteners stood in an evenly spaced grid, punching and kicking on command. They ran in place, and dropped to a pushup when instructed to. A far cry from the calming yoga down the hall.
“From one extreme to another,” Mistr said.
Near the end of the lesson, the instructor told them to drop into a pushup position. Kindergarteners struggle with upper body strength, Mistr said, and few of the students can do a true pushup. Getting started early, however, will help them when fitness tests start in third grade.
“It’s hard, man,” Mistr said. “Core strength is everything.”
The martial arts instructors come in a few times each year, but they’re not the only guests. Mistr said he has a long list of community partners who come to bring healthy-living lessons to Pink Elementary. Rowdy, the Dallas Cowboys mascot, has visited the school with the NFL’s Play 60 health and exercise campaign. The Dallas Stars brings in players for hockey lessons.
Ginn, the district coordinator, said the strategy is to give students as diverse a set of experiences both in and out of the gym as possible. That way, students will feel comfortable trying new things when it comes to physical health throughout their lives.
“There’s nothing that I won’t do to give our kiddos a new opportunity,” Mistr said. “I feel like the work we do here is the work that should be done all over. It’s our job to do that for our kiddos.”