The secret to getting Wellesley kids up early and exercising: spinach smoothies, toilet tag

Hunnewell BOKSWellesley elementary schools are piloting a free morning health program called BOKS (or boks… Build Our Kids’ Success) that’s designed to get students’ hearts pumping and brains cranking right before classes starts.  The results have been positive and organizers expect the program will go district-wide before long.

Hunnewell Elementary School dad Chris Cavallerano, who was running a similar program for his 3 boys and some neighborhood kids in his driveway,  spearheaded Wellesley BOKS (If Cavallerano’s name rings a bell, perhaps it’s from his blindfolded 2012 Boston Marathon run.). He partnered with physical education teacher Toni Duval to start BOKS at Hunnewell in November, and attracted 30 kids from grades K-5. Cavallerano and Duval usually act as head trainers, with plenty of parent volunteers to help.

Cavallerano says Fiske and Schofield elementary schools in Wellesley also are piloting BOKS programs and he imagines it will spread district-wide.

BOKS is bigger than Wellesley though.  The program was launched in Natick in 2009, initially as Fit Kidz, by a few moms. They partnered with Reebok, and since then BOKS has expanded across the country (160 elementary schools in 20 states) and the world (194 schools overall, including in Japan, South Korea and Indonesia). Even the White House has taken notice.

Hunnewell mom Suzanne Votapka, who is leading the school’s BOKS program, describes a typical morning session as involving “a skill of the week (situps, burpees, planks, push ups, squats, running), a fun game incorporating the skill and a nutrition tidbit.  Toilet tag was clearly the kids’ favorite.  The kids tagged would have to squat with their elbow out.  They were free by having a teammate ‘flush the toilet’ by pushing the elbow down.  Nutrition highlights were spinach smoothies and pomegranate seeds.”

She asked two of her boys why they like to do it and they responded in unison: “Because it is so much fun!”  Votapka added: “I guess that is the key – making exercise and nutrition fun.” (Here’s a video of a typical class via the BOKS website.)

Hunnewell BOKStars (via BOKS FB page)

Hunnewell BOKStars (via BOKS FB page)

BOKS is held outside, weather permitting, and one bonus is that kids even get to run in the halls once in a while. Other fun twists include occasional participation in the exercises by parents, teachers and custodians.

Cavallerano says he likes to think of BOKS as a younger version of November Project, a community-oriented workout group that has taken hold in Boston.

“The emerging neuroscience behind exercise and learning is really amazing and the benefits [of BOKS] go beyond the mind and body to build a more supportive/positive community at an early age,” Cavallerano says. “I see it as a positive and proactive partnership between parents and a thoughtful and open school administration.  It’s been very cool to be part of.” As for the science, Cavallerano predicts that BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)  will become the acronym of the future.

The next Hunnewell session starts the week of Jan. 28 and runs until the week of April 8, with BOKS workouts from 7:30-8:15am. Kids typically take part two days a week, though the program itself might extend to four days if there are enough sign-ups to warrant addition sessions.

Feedback from parents, kids and school personnel has been positive, with  Interim Hunnewell Principal Barbara Manfredi and Superintendant David Lussier among the supporters.   At a recent townwide meeting,  the decision was made to allow BOKS to continue and expand in Wellesley, according to Cavallerano.

BOKS isn’t restricted to public schools in Wellesley either. St. Paul School just started a BOKS program last week, from 7:10-7:45am on Tuesdays/Thursdays, according to Dianna Manning.  The inspiration behind the program, she says, is “a desire to help the children of St. Paul be more efficient learners and be focused and ready for the long amounts of time they need to sit during the school day.  I have known friends whose children participate in the program in Natick. They have seen both mental and physical benefits.

Two other interesting Wellesley angles on BOKS: The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College received funding to conduct a multi-year study of BOKS and other such programs within the Natick public school system; and the Natick mom who came up with the original idea for BOKS was inspired to do so after reading the book Spark by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. John Ratey… whose kids attended Wellesley’s Hunnewell school.

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