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Venable School Builds "Able" Bodies

At Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia, students are encouraged to adopt the healthy habits of physical fitness and good nutrition through exciting programs that begin in physical education class. Discover how instructor Fran Zavacky is making Venable a veritable hub of physical activity. Included: Original fitness and nutrition programs organized at Venable.

"Our children, Peter and Anna, are aware of the importance of physical activity," said parent Amy Stewart. "When there's a school break, they inform me and my husband that they are supposed to run around for an hour a day!"

A Flurry of Activity
Venable Elementary uses different approaches to reach its student body with positive messages about fitness and nutrition. "Keeping everything we do fresh is as much a motivator for me as it is for the students," says Fran Zavacky. "I tend to think outside the box and am always trying to find a new spin for established and basic information. Many concepts and activities are much more enjoyable for students if I can find a new way to capture their attention." Some current initiatives include:

Jump-Rope Club
Students are challenged to reach benchmarks based on the number of successive jumps they perform.

A bicycle-safety program is in place, and fourth grade students soon will learn about rollerblading. Zavacky plans a "play" day for the end of May that will be the spring counterpart to fall field day. A recent grant will provide the school with a climbing wall, and a parent-child climbing program will be implemented after school.

Snack Smart, Venable!
Good eating habits and exercise are emphasized in this program in which students strive to eat five servings of fruit each day and complete four fifteen-minute "snacks" of physical activity. Their progress is recorded on a daily log that is signed by their parents, and they receive incentives for maintaining positive lifestyle changes.

Physical Activity Treasure Chests
In 2004, departing fourth-graders donated to the school two "physical activity treasure chests" to house equipment on the playgrounds, and Zavacky obtained a grant from the PTO to stock them with physical activity equipment. The materials are available to students during recess.

Twenty-Minute Workout
A fall initiative provided a 20-minute workout period for teachers after school. The organized effort ended after a month, but some teachers continue to work out together as schedules allow.

"One contest will challenge fourth graders to accumulate the most exercise time for the month, and the winner will receive a free pedometer," Zavacky noted. "Younger students will be challenged to accumulate walking or running mileage and to virtually travel to a variety of locations. (Second graders are attempting to run the length of the Great Wall of China, one of the cultures they study.) These are very exciting new events that are guaranteed to keep our children active!"

Stewart's children attend kindergarten and second grade at Venable Elementary in Charlottesville, Virginia, a school that makes fitness for all a high priority.

"When I arrived at Venable School last year, I wanted to share the message that physical activity should be valued as an everyday necessity in the lives of children," recalled Fran Zavacky, the school's physical education instructor. "Luckily, our principal believes in the importance of daily physical activity for children and already supported daily recess for all students, as did the teachers."

Students use phys ed equipment on the playground.

Teachers have limited funds to provide students with the equipment necessary to engage in a wide variety of activities during that free time, so Zavacky's first step was to share equipment with teachers so students had a variety of options for active play. She also introduced initiatives designed to motivate students to exercise and practice activities they encountered in gym class.

"We started Jump Rope Clubs, a motivational series of challenges that have enhanced students' personal cardiovascular fitness," Zavacky stated. "Jump-Rope Clubs have rejuvenated student interest in physical activity outside of school and recess. Students in grades K-4 have the opportunity to achieve challenge benchmarks of 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 300, 400, and 500 successive individual jumps with a jump rope. When a student has achieved a given goal, he or she receives a bookmark for the accomplishment, both as a reward and a tool to promote literacy."

A group of Venable boys jumps rope

Students who learn the "ropes" can take the experience a step further with Jump-Rope Trick Clubs. In those activities, they earn certificates for mastery of fancy jump-rope combinations. Even teacher Deanna Leach's young first graders get into the act jumping rope. She says they like trying to meet personal goals and the experience builds their self-esteem.

"The students enjoy the variety of activities and equipment used in physical education class, including jumping rope," said Leach. "The activities help build and strengthen students' bodies as they have fun." She adds, not surprisingly, that they never fail to complain if they happen to miss a gym period!


Students at Venable are doing much more than learning to jump rope, however. Recognizing the potential to reinforce classroom experiences, Zavacky seeks ways to relate the physical activities students perform in her classes with their regular curriculum. A recent activity had students playing the role of escaping slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, complete with costumes and atmosphere.

"Movement occurred during every era in history," she observed. "Connections can be made through the incorporation of simulation activities -- such as the Underground Railroad, or a circuit of Colonial work and play activities, or upcoming activities on building the Pyramids -- that can cement several key concepts about the time period."

Students crawl to freedom as runaway slaves

Younger students utilize the alphabet, numbers, and geometric shapes in a wide range of physical activities. With older students, Zavacky introduces more complex combinations -- such as dribbling -- that incorporate multiplication tables or mathematical patterns. Learning the cues for each new skill promotes literacy and vocabulary development.

"The integration of other curricular subjects into physical education classes results in a more thorough depth of knowledge for students," Zavacky explained. "Rather than creating artificial situations, I try to look for natural transfers -- opportunities where a classroom concept naturally exists in another setting. Once you begin to point out where those natural transfers occur, students begin to recognize them on their own and make greater cognitive connections as they begin to see how the world fits together, even in physical education."

Themed obstacle courses at Venable include this one designed for Halloween.

Although her children enjoy the break from regular classroom activities, Stewart reports that their favorite happenings are the special events in which Zavacky blends physical education and other curricular goals.

"Both Peter and Anna were bursting with excitement over the Underground Railroad activity -- not only with the physical challenges of it, but also with all that they learned about the Underground Railroad," she recalled.


In an effort to extend physical education to the home, Zavacky unveiled "Snack Smart, Venable!" in September 2004. The nutrition and physical activity incentive program challenged students to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables and also to participate in four fifteen-minute exercise "snacks" each day as part of their "homework."

Those practices enable students to fulfill the recommended guidelines for daily physical activity, says Zavacky, but most importantly, they encourage children to make lifestyle changes with the support of their parents. Students complete a daily log signed by their parents and receive awards each month based on the sustainability of those lifestyle habits.

"The students have reported that the initiative has caused them to try new foods they otherwise would not have eaten, out of a wish to meet the guidelines and try new things," Zavacky said. "Many students have made a conscious effort to include more physical activity in their day."

Venable parents have conveyed stories about their children discouraging the family from eating fast food, opting for fruit and vegetable servings while dining out, and even avoiding French fries in restaurants!

"Our family is fairly active, and we let the children know that it is far better to run around outside than to sit inside in front of the television," Stewart shared." It's great to have that reinforced at school. Also, since Ms. Zavacky asked us to keep track of fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity, we all have been more aware of what we're eating and how much activity we actually do."

In another tactic designed to reach the home, Zavacky's fourth grade students wear pedometers full-time to make them and their parents more aware of the amount of physical activity they are engaged in.

John Hunter's nine-year-old daughter, Madeline, attends Venable Elementary, and he is a teacher of the gifted at the school. He says that the exciting, personal interaction with "Ms. Z" draws Madeline into the activities. She talks up the program and what she and Zavacky have accomplished.

"My daughter will begin jogging spontaneously on family walks and outings, encouraging all to join her," said Hunter. "On her own, she began a pre-bedtime routine of floor exercises, because Ms. Z talked about the importance of all-around fitness. Madeline began to think about her body's growth and how to maintain a diet and life habits that will 'beat fat,' so she will be healthy all her life -- again, through Ms. Z's influence."

Students practice Pilates for core strength.

In fact, Madeline's enthusiasm and encouragement, and Zavacky's underlying message of all-around fitness, have even landed Hunter in one of her after school adult fitness classes! He says that the new climbing wall, in-line skating, hockey, bike riding and safety, and other efforts initiated by Zavacky have made the gym and her class space a central meeting place and hangout for countless students and faculty. Adds Hunter, "It's no longer my mother's physical education class! This is state-of -the-art, lifetime well-being that starts in kindergarten."


As Madeline attests, Zavacky's focus at Venable is to help children discover a love of movement and to teach them a wide variety of fundamental movement skills that will give them the confidence to try any kind of physical activity they choose throughout their lives.

Students play scooter hockey.

"I recently asked some third-graders what they felt strongly about in physical education class," she shared. "Many students cited individual sports or activities they preferred, but just as many told me that, despite the fact that they did not consider themselves sport kids, they valued the opportunity to learn a wide variety of sports and activities and to become confident enough in their abilities to enjoy those physical activities. They are happy that physical education class has helped them develop athletic skills they never thought they would have and understand that sport is not just playing the game. I could not have said it better, nor defined a more positive goal for them."

As a child, Stewart struggled in intimidating physical education classes that underscored competition. Today she appreciates Venable's emphasis on healthy activities that everyone can do. "I applaud the focus on integrating physical activity into everyday life and the creativity Ms. Zavacky brings to her classes, and her integration of physical activity into the broader curriculum. It is great to see Anna and Peter's excitement and pleasure over physical education classes."

Article by Cara Bafile
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