When Physical Activity Matters Just as Much as Minecraft

How three teachers changed the culture of their schools.

Rising New York Road Runners (RNYRR) at P.S. 1 Alfred E. Smith School.

Making student physical activity a school-wide priority has its challenges. Teachers have their hurdles, including lack of funding, fitness opportunities, and time. Take into consideration that students spend an average of seven hours a day looking at a screen and nearly a third of high schoolers spend three hours a day playing video games, and the hurdle becomes even higher. But passionate teachers across the U.S. are working to increase student physical activity and change the culture of their schools. We recently talked with three teachers who have made increasing their students’ physical activity a priority.

Learning to Love Running

Two teachers cutting a cake who advocate for student physical activity

Luling Elementary School (LES) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Most mornings you’ll find teachers Dottie Watson (above, right) and Dana Dufrene (above, left) up and running at 5 a.m. Their first- through fifth-grade students count on them as fitness leaders and motivators—and they aren’t even the PE teachers.

A few years ago, Dottie, a speech pathologist, and Dana, a reading interventionist, recognized the lack of fitness opportunities for their students. A large portion of LES families are single-parent households, many are headed by adults who work multiple jobs, and several students are the children of incarcerated parents. It is a challenge to find time and resources for student physical activity outside of PE class.

“The kids live between chemical and nuclear plants,” Dottie says. “If you’re poor and live in New Orleans, there are still resources, like recreation centers. If you’re poor in a rural area like we live in, there’s not as much.”

Combining their passion for fitness and love for their students, Dottie and Dana saw an opportunity. Dottie learned about Rising New York Road Runners , a free nationwide program designed to encourage movement skills in kids through running and other fitness activities. The organization also offers resources for emerging running and fitness programs.


What happened when this partnership turned into a school- and community-wide movement to make physical activity matter? It was game-on.

Bringing the Community Together

Student physical activity - group of kids exercising

Along with the guidance and resources from Rising New York Road Runners, the newly named LES running club, Loving Every Second (LES), was on its way. “Before anything we taught them,” Dana says, “they would always know we love every second of our time with them.” 

The welcoming of volunteers helped the program spread its wings and set a foundation of admiration and respect between the students and their community. 

“Your math or reading teacher is sweating it out with you,” Dana says. “You’re going to listen and have a deeper love and commitment to something when your teacher is running with you.”

Morning meetings in the classroom began to incorporate dance. Police officers participated in workouts and offered motivational talks. A local CrossFit gym donated sessions to the group, and the school cafeteria manager helped mentor the club. Everyone was in.

“It broke down any kind of restriction,” Dottie says. “We had access to their hearts. Once you share your time with them, it’s authentic. You can teach them anything.”

Go Ahead and Change Lanes

Group of students holding a Rising New York Road Runners banner participating in student physical activity

Dottie and Dana initially feared criticism since starting the running club wasn’t in their obvious professional lanes. They got over that fear quickly, and they say there’s no way they’d change the road they’re running. The program has motivated students to take on unexpected challenges and make interesting choices, which often create the biggest impact and reward.

“Learning to say yes speaks volumes to children,” Dottie says. “We want them to know there’s nothing they can’t do. The Rising New York Road Runners program has given them that. They know they can run a race and do well! Do anything! There are no barriers for them.”

In New York, a Surprising Career Move Leads to Passion

Lystra-Ann Lee Sam and her Community Math and Science running students in NYC

Native Trinidadian and 17-year New York City Public Schools teacher Lystra-Ann Lee Sam has been a PE instructor for 42 years. But she didn’t always believe that’s where her future and passion would flourish. “I thought I was going to be a nurse when I went to university,” Lystra-Ann says. “When I realized all that was possible [in physical education], my mind shifted. There was no way I was going to give up passing this knowledge on to the next generation.”

Lystra-Ann has taught at Community Math and Science Prep in Manhattan for nearly a decade. The diversely populated middle school (sixth through eighth grades) has a strong, valued physical education program that, Lystra-Ann says, makes her job keeping student interest easier. Lystra-Ann knew, however, that adding an empowering community-building platform to her curriculum would help motivate student interest in fitness.

Getting involved with the Rising New York Road Runners program gave the student body—and the faculty and staff—that extra incentive for physical activity commitment, Lystra-Ann says. She uses some of the online activities and exercises provided by Rising New York Road Runners to keep the kids motivated.

Taking It Beyond the School Bell

The 2017 Global Running Day Mighty Milers Fun Run (MMFR) and Activities.

Lystra-Ann says that most kids are very active and ready to participate during school hours. It’s what happens with the transfer into the community that poses a difficulty. “Our students have some challenges outside of school that can make it hard to find physical outlets,” she says. Parks and neighborhood spaces for activity exist, but they aren’t always in an ideal setting. “Many parents won’t let their kids just go outside, for safety reasons, of their neighborhood or park. The parents are more willing to let them get involved when our kids have a safe environment.”

For Lystra-Ann and her colleagues, giving students a program like Rising New York Road Runners has been a gift. “We’re giving them that safe zone,” she says. “We are always striving to create new resources and opportunities for our kids and their families. It engages them to get creative too. I have students coming to ask if we’ll set up morning time before school so they can play sports in the gym, like volleyball. We try to open these doors and make it happen.”

A No-Limits Approach to Their Future

Rising New York Road Runners (RNYRR) at P.S. 1 Alfred E. Smith School.

Elite marathoners have visited Community Math and Science Prep for additional training ideas and support. “The students get so motivated because they want to do these things. They offer them a vision, not just of what they could do with running but what’s possible within themselves,” says Lystra-Ann.

Lystra-Ann continues to look for opportunities to give her students a vital connection to the outside world and to inspire them to continue a fit mentality when they leave middle school. “When former students return, you see the result of your constant encouragement and why you never gave up on someone,” Lystra-Ann says. “Their whole outlook on their life can be changed. It’s what keeps teachers going. You know somewhere down the line, it kicks in. And it’s beautiful.”

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Learn More About the Free Nationwide Rising New York Road Runners Program

Group of kids outside participating in student physical activity