The dark sky was slowly lightening into morning over Hall Street as a group of kids from O’Loughlin Elementary School took to the dewy field outside their school to run.
Local Army reservists and parent volunteers shouted encouragement as the children passed the starting line. Children, with their arms and legs flailing with fun in motion, earned brightly colored popsicle sticks for every lap, which they clutched tightly like tiny trophies.
Members of the 388th Multi-functional Medical Battalion, which is based in Hays, recently partnered with O’Loughlin to create the Morning Mile program. Lt. Johnathan Clark and his wife recently moved to Hays from Florida and duplicated a program they started there.
Children run laps in the field between O’Loughlin and Thomas More Prep-Marian on Tuesday and Friday mornings. When the weather is bad, they run inside in the gym. Every 30-minute session, which starts at 7:15 a.m., begins with warm-ups.
Clark said the collection of the lap sticks can be pretty competitive. It helps encourage the kids to get just one more lap in before they go in for school. At the end of the school year, the battalion hopes to conduct an awards ceremony and honor the girl and boy in each grade who ran the most laps.
The goal of the program, which includes kindergarten through fifth-graders, is to build healthy minds and healthy bodies.
Clark said he was inspired by a book titled “Spark” by John Ratey. It discusses what cardio aerobic activity does for the brain.
It highlighted a project in Indiana, which linked physical activity with improved test scores.
The school had unranked test scores, but a running program helped increase the students’ scores to some of the best in the world in math and science. The Indiana program is very similar to the O’Loughlin program, except the Indiana program had heart monitors.
“I think it is a great opportunity for myself and the community,” he said. “It gets the kids moving. It teaches them healthier habits and it gets their brains going in the morning. I’ve got a super-energetic kid, and I see a complete 180 in my son whenever we do this program.”
After five months of the Clarks doing the program in Florida, the student runners’ test scores improved 16 percent from the previous year. The testing was first thing in the morning when they could reap the most benefit from the physical activity, Clark said.
“What I try to do is push the kids hard and get their heart rate up and get them breathing hard, and then if their first few classes were their hardest classes, they would excel the most in those,” he said.
The physical activity can help children who struggle with depression or ADHD. The program helps children who are high energy or hyperactive get their energy out and focus during the day.
Vicki Gile, O’Loughlin principal, said she is very pleased with program in the short time it has been at the school and is already seeing results in the students.
“I think there are multifaceted benefits to that. Research has shown kids are not getting the same amount of exercise as they used to,” she said. “The physical health piece is great. Not only are those kids really getting an outlet for energy, they get focus to the day. It is a great start for the day.”
The program also gives the children the opportunity to participate with a group of their peers and have positive interactions with adults, Gile said.
Parent volunteer Matt Dumler has been coming out to the Morning Mile to participate with his son, Bryson, who is in the third grade. The reservists and parents both run with the children as well as track their laps and give encouragement.
“It prepares them for the day. It gets their blood flowing,” he said.
Dumler, a former cross country coach, grew up running and so did his wife. He said engaging the kids early to physical activity can help them develop a lifelong fitness habit.
Clark started in the Army as an enlisted man, but worked to become an officer so he could work on community-involvement programs like the Morning Mile.
“This gives our battalion a great opportunity to interact with the public and promote the Army in the way we want the Army to be perceived,” he said.
Children can still sign up for the program. Permission slip forms are available in the school office.