GRAND FORKS – A new exercise room, funded by a federal grant, is making a positive impact on students’ health and fitness – as well as their academic progress – at Nathan Twining Elementary and Middle School at Grand Forks Air Force Base, school officials say.

The Exergaming Room is filled with a wide assortment of equipment to get kids away from computer screens and their electronic devices, and get them excited about physical activity.

This room “encourages movement,” Principal Chad Kurtyka said. “It’s a way of cultivating mind/body wellness for teachers and students.”

After installing the equipment in October, the school has been tracking the progress and the impact it is having on students, both in terms of academics and behaviors, he said.

“When we are unable to go outside (due to weather), this is a way of adding movement during the day,” Kurtyka said.

“We have had really good feedback from teachers, whether they work with small groups or one-on-one with students,” he said.

School officials applied for and received the Project FIT (Fitness Integration at Twining) to Learn grant last year from the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) agency. The project aims “to enhance student achievement through movement-oriented instruction, designed to meet individual learning needs,” according to the grant.

Twining School is in the second year of the five-year, $500,000 grant which has opened new opportunities for the school’s 300 students in early childhood education through grade 8 and special education.

The school has prioritized health and fitness initiatives, especially in light of public health statistics that reveal an increase in the prevalence of obesity and the lack of physical activity among school-age children.

“Our kids need to move,” said Elizabeth Berger, director of the Project FIT grant at Twining.

Berger attended a DoDEA conference where she was struck by a presentation on data regarding student health and obesity across the nation, she said. “Kids are more sedentary. Kids are spending more time on devices.”

Children coming into the preK and kindergarten programs are not able to roll over on the floor, Berger said.

“They are not getting fundamental crawling skills,” said Christy Hartwell, who was hired under the grant as the Project FIT classroom specialist.

Some children, when they mount a bike in the school’s Exergaming Room, “they start to pedal backwards – it’s a natural inclination – you can tell they’ve never ridden a bike before,” Hartwell said.

The Exergaming Room is outfitted with an assortment of equipment, such as a balance beam, tools for educational-based games, two interactive screens that track students’ movement, and spin bikes that monitor heart rate and can be adjusted for speed and terrain conditions.

“(It has) bikes with Xbox controllers that you can play as long as you keep peddling,” Kurtyka said.

All students’ activities in the room are done under adult supervision.

Professional development sessions have been held to inform teachers on the “why” behind Project FIT, as well as how they can best use the Exergaming Room to benefit students, Berger said.

‘The best thing ever’

After she and her family moved from Hawaii to the Grand Forks Air Force Base in August 2022, “my kids had trouble that first winter,” Hartwell said. “My oldest really struggled.”

For her son, Rylan, 13, a seventh-grader, it’s the movement that’s the most fun.

“I get here really early,” he said, “and I work on things to help me concentrate better in class.”

He uses dumb bells and a medicine ball, plays video games that encourage movement, and practices on the balance beam, he said.

“I lift weights in the summertime, but the winter is tough. … It’s hard to just play,” he said. “I am a very active person.”

His first winter at the base was difficult, he said. “I felt really sad not being with as many people as I usually had been.”

In Hawaii, “I was always outside, always playing baseball,” he said. “Here, in the winter, you can’t do anything.”

Marge Myrold, who teaches middle school mathematics and music at Twining, said the Exergaming Room is very beneficial for kids who are not athletes.

Meaghan Dunham said students in her fourth-grade class “think it’s the best thing ever. It’s a good way to get their energy out.”

She’s also noticed how the activity helps them learn spelling words and multiplication, she said, noting that each week she teaches a different skill. For example, when playing hopscotch, the students voice the letter of a word with each hop.

Dunham brings her class to the room once a week, but also brings kids who need more physical activity at other times – sometimes daily.

Fifteen to 20 minutes – even 10 minutes – of physical exercise can release excess energy, Berger said. “It can reduce explosive behavior (in the classroom). We can catch explosive behavior before it happens.”

Physical activity helps students in “managing their emotions, learning about their bodies,” Berger said. “And how to regulate yourself.”

Not only are behaviors affected by increased physical activity, academic abilities are too.

Dunham collected data on four students who were lower academically, she said. After regular visits to the Exergaming Room, they all showed progress in academic assessment tests.

She and others have found, too, that physical activity just before a tough assignment, like a math test, also resulted in better test scores, Dunham said. “It’s been so fun to see.”

Principal Kurtyka, who has worked in other Grand Forks public schools, said, “Other schools in the district don’t have this.”

The Exergaming Room “makes such a difference,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for kids to express themselves and get moving.”   

On base, a lot of parents are teachers and paras at Twining, he noted. “And they are seeing how (Project FIT) is affecting their children – and other people’s kids too.”

“Even families are using it, too,” Kurtyka said. The activity generated by the Project FIT grant “has connected the school with the community more.”


Originally published on Grand Fork Herald

Article Source: Twining School’s ‘Exergaming Room’ sparks wide range of physical activity for mind/body wellness


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