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4 Ways to Foster Belonging Through Physical Activity

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By Daniel Hatcher

I grew up in small town rural America during the 80s and 90s. Although I now work for a national children's health nonprofit, physical activity hasn't always been a favorite part of my life. As a child, I just didn't fit the mold of what boys were supposed to be or do―I didn't like sports and I definitely wasn't athletic. I remember the feeling of being the last kid picked during gym class and hoping to disappear into the sidelines during recess. I remember watching team captains sigh at the realization that I was going to be on their team. Physical activity was a dreaded experience, made even worse if it involved competition. Being on a team was more about feeling excluded than gaining any of the important benefits of play, such as fostering a sense of community and healthy risk-taking, helping me focus on schoolwork, or giving me valuable tools to collaborate with my peers.

For the last decade, I've worked for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Our goal is to create healthier schools and communities, and equity is at the heart of our work. We know that when kids feel included and safe in school, they're more likely to learn and excel - the same is true of play and physical activity.

As we head into summer, here are four ways that families and youth-focused organizations can foster belonging through physical activity.

 1.     Embrace Cooperation

The National AfterSchool Association Standards encourage youth development organizations to ensure "children and youth obtain at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day." All educators play a role in helping children achieve this goal. From adding group energizers to community events to playing do-it-yourself (DIY) games like "activity wheel" at roll call and hosting impromptu dance parties (see #4), cooperative physical activities allow everyone to succeed together.

 2.     Champion Inclusion

I'm proud to serve on the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) advisory panel. A key takeaway from my involvement: small adaptations in equipment and instruction can greatly contribute to making physical activity inclusive. It's easy to lose sight of inclusion, especially during the busy summer months. One of the most important things we can do is simply ask if anyone has mobility issues or needs a helping hand. Here is a list of tips and resources from NCHPAD. Plan with inclusion in mind, and consider activities like bird watching and nature exploration.

healthier gen.jpg

 3.     Use Staff Meetings to Role-Model

In addition to increasing student participation, getting staff off the sidelines and physically active with students has important social and emotional benefits. These moments of shared leadership cultivate social competence, encourage relationship building and teach responsibility. Set the tone that active staff participation is the norm by starting every meeting with a physical activity. Adopting a wellness policy can make staff role modeling an expectation. Here are 10 ideas for inexpensive active icebreakers.

 4.     Never Let Anyone Be Picked Last

I started this article by sharing my story of being picked last. Competition is a great motivator and working in teams has the power to bring us together. In fact, Healthier Generation and S&S Worldwide created a Printable Fitness Challenge Calendar that encourages students to challenge and motivate each other. But when breaking into groups, how teams are formed matters. PE Central has a list of ideas for forming teams. My favorite one is "Birds of a Feather" (#6). Here's what it looks like in action.

Developing a lifelong love of movement starts with feeling welcome and included while participating in physical activity. Together we can ensure all children achieve the recommended amounts of physical activity in a way that supports them socially and emotionally.

Photo: Students play hopscotch together during recess (Courtesy of Alliance for a Healthier Generation).

Daniel W. Hatcher is director of community partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national nonprofit working to empower schools, companies, community organizations and families to transform the conditions and systems that lead to healthier kids. Follow him on Twitter at @hatchdw and @healthiergen.

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