Community centers work to help kids get active

East Madison Community Center (Karen Hess/Madison Commons)East Madison Community Center (Karen Hess/Madison Commons)


Between 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., after a long day at school, children begin filing in to four different community centers on Madison’s north and east sides. The centers provide structured after-school programs in a safe, supervised space.

Last spring, leaders from the area’s community centers got together to tackle another goal—improving the fitness and nutrition of the youth they serve.

Over the summer, Goodman Community Center, Kennedy Heights Community Center, Vera Court Neighborhood Center, and East Madison Community Center launched a program called Fit Youth Initiative (FYI) aimed at getting kids healthy. It’s funded by a grant from the Goodman Foundation. The program instills a regimented level of moderate to vigorous physical activity and nutrition education into existing youth programs.

“Kids used to sit on the sidelines and text,” said Stephanie Fox, Lead Fitness Instructor for the program.

The new initiative aims to change that.

In Dane County, about 23 percent of seventh-12th graders are overweight or obese, according to a report from Public Health Madison and Dane County. As populations age, the numbers don’t get much better —  59 percent of adults are overweight or obese.

“The reason this program was created was there was a lack of understanding of health and wellness,” said Fox. She travels between the four centers to work with staff and kids.

The program incorporates activities from Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK), a research-based public health organization based out of California. While the program has roots in the San Diego State University Research Foundation, materials are now sold through a private educational resources company. The company offers several different programs, including structured physical education and after school programs for teachers and program leaders.

Goodman is by far the largest of the four community centers involved, and has implemented the program for elementary school age children with plans to expand to older youth in 2015. They estimate 337 elementary school age children successfully completed the FYI program over the summer. Other centers have implemented the program for both elementary and middle school groups. Summer attendance at Vera Court Neighborhood Center averages around 50 elementary age children and 25 middle school age children. East Madison Community Center averages 30 elementary age children and 20 middle school age children. Kennedy Heights Community Center averages 50 elementary age children and 50 middle school age children. 

Although the centers already had some level of physical activity and nutrition focus, the FYI program sets new standards and streamlines what the centers are doing.

Fox described one game where children pretend they are frogs in a pond—they use small plastic circles to move from one side of the gym to the other. While the games are designed to get kids moving, they are also designed to promote collaboration.

“They were very goal-oriented when they were doing that game. They were helping and teaching each other,” said Fox. “They were giving each other pointers.”

The East Madison Community Center implemented its Fit for the Future program in 2008, according to Alison Ahlgrim, the center’s assistant director. In 2008 the group also built a Health and Wellness expansion that included a full size gym and kitchen.

“I think we see more and more sedentary kids, kids who were coming in and just wanting to watch movies or play on the computer,” said Ahlgrim. “Something needed to be done.”

Ahlgrim noted some of the biggest changes have been introducing the SPARK curriculum and deepening its partnerships with neighboring community centers.

“The other big change is that the staff as a whole are talking about fitness and nutrition a lot more. You see it running through all of our programming more,” Ahlgrim said.

But it’s not always easy to get kids moving, according to Mike Jackson, the center’s assistant youth program manager.

“It’s kind of a struggle, you have to incorporate some fun in it so it’s not looking like exercise, so it looks like fun activities,” said Jackson. “We stay away from calling it exercise.”

The center’s after-school program incorporates nutrition, academics, and exercise. According to Jackson, the program begins around 3 p.m. with a healthy snack. At 3:30 kids engage in a structured wellness activity to get active. At 4:30 p.m., kids can choose to work on homework for an hour and a half or read and attend language arts, a program that may include grammar activities. At 6 p.m., the group reconvenes for a healthy meal before heading home.

Jackson hopes the message of health and wellness reaches adults too.

“We are trying to encourage more people to get involved in wellness to live a longer life,” said Jackson.

A major part of the wellness focus of FYI includes a stronger focus on nutrition. For Kennedy Heights Community Center, that has meant including more whole grains and fresh vegetables in the meals it serves. It has eliminated juice and now only offers milk and water.

“Parents have given us a lot of feedback that they are impressed by the amount of vegetables and fresh fruit,” Executive Director Alyssa Kenney said.

The center has even had a parent call and ask for the hummus recipe that was used in a program. The child came home and wanted more, which is the sort of change the program hopes for.

Nutrition education for elementary and middle school kids has included lessons from UW-Extension nutrition educators at the center, and also visits to the UW-Extension’s professional kitchen. Kenney hopes to expand nutrition education to preschool students in 2015.

Different centers have also meant different resources.

“We have our own unique challenges because we don’t have a gym,” said Becky Bauer, RISE program coordinator at Vera Court Community Center.

The center has looked for indoor opportunities and also focused on outdoor activities like gardening.

In 2015, the Goodman Community Center will expand its program.

 “We have gotten elementary going, the wheel is moving,” said Zach Watson, assistant manager for the FYI program and male youth programs coordinator at Goodman. He notes a different age group pose new challenges.

“As you get to these older kids, the middle and high school kids, it’s more about options,” said Watson. “How can we make these options that we have currently better overall, are these things they want to do. That is the next step.”

Watson hopes to utilize feedback from middle school youth to plan future activities. Some of the ideas he already has are rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, and skiing and snowboarding.

As the program moves forward, the goal is to spark interest and create healthy habits at a young age.

According to Stephanie Fox, the program’s lead fitness instructor, “We are really trying to treat the child holistically in ways that will create lifestyle changes that hopefully last.”