• January 2012

BOKS Kids Gets Kids Moving

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine

We know all the statistics: Kids today are spending more time than ever in front of the computer, playing video games, and watching TV.

At school, physical education classes and recess have been drastically reduced and in some cases, eliminated all together. Nutritious home-cooked meals have been replaced by quick, easy, and less-expensive processed foods.

“It’s no wonder that obesity rates among children have reached epidemic proportions,” says Kathleen Tullie, director of Reebok’s nonprofit organization, BOKS Kids. “Experts agree that inactivity and poor eating habits not only contribute to obesity but also have a negative impact on academic performance.”

Of course, most of this research Tullie knew instinctively.

That was in 2008, the year the Boston mom decided to quit her well-paying finance job to stay home with her kids.

Since school didn’t start until 9 a.m., and her kids were up and eager at 6, every morning before school her kids would head out to the lawn to play. Pretty soon, about a dozen kids were popping by to join them.

An athlete herself, Tullie slipped a whistle around her neck and started running soccer drills with the makeshift team. After a few weeks, she got to thinking that maybe this early-morning program could be held at school, and include even more kids.

Around the same time, she read Spark, a groundbreaking book on the scientific connection between exercise and brain development, by Harvard professor, Dr. John Ratey.

“Exercise is the single most powerful tool that we have to optimize the function of our brains,” writes Ratey, whom we had the privilege of interviewing, as well. Click here for that.

Ratey’s book also referenced the work of Dr. Chuck Hillman from the University of Illinois, which further illustrates the point that moderate to vigorous physical activity stimulates brain function and creates the physiological conditions for students to be ready to learn.

Consider the facts:

  • An Illinois study found that students who exercised were able to increase their math scores by 16.5 percent compared to those who did not exercise.
  • In a study of California students, those who were more physically fit performed at higher levels in their core subjects than those who were not.
  • By increasing the physical activity of girls in kindergarten and first grade by only one hour per week, the number of overweight 5-6 year olds could be reduced by nearly 10 percent.
  • And yet, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, most elementary students are receiving only 33 percent to 66 percent of the recommended 150 minutes of physical education classes per week.

Armed with solid data, an idea began percolating to start a nonprofit organization to feed kids’ brains with exercise.

Tullie approached the principal at her kids’ school. “Unfortunately, he was overwhelmed with everything he had to do already,” Tullie shares.

Undaunted, she made an appointment with the district superintendent—who was very excited about the opportunity. Her argument was that evidence shows that if kids (and grown-ups, too) exercise from 15-20 minutes a day, and get their hearts beating at up to 80 percent of their maximum rate, it has the same effect as taking Ritilin, a medication commonly prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

He was sold. Of course, it helped that he had also read “Spark.” Before long, there was a pilot program in place.

Tullie rounded up a group of about 10 moms to help her organize it. They sent out an email to the school’s parents and within a week, 80 kids were signed up to come an hour before school to run relay races and play on obstacle courses.

And then the anecdotal evidence started rolling in.

“Within about a week, we started getting emails about the positive impact of the program on the kids,” Tullie explains. “The parents told us that they were sleeping better, not fighting as much with their siblings, and teachers were emailing saying their classes were calmer, and they could sense that the kids were more confident.”

Soon, word spread to other communities asking for Tullie’s curriculum.

“I laughed because here I was in workout clothes with a whistle around my neck, saying let’s do some relay races,” she admits. “I had no magic, or a curriculum. But I saw the opportunity to create something. After all, we are in an era when kids really need exercise. So many gym programs have been cut from schools, and few American kids get the required 60 minutes of exercise that the CDC recommends they need each day.”

Plus, she believes, so many parents in America are so vested in the health and well-being of their children that there’s something grassroots that can be done to get kids up and running around.

By late 2009, Tullie had created a formal nonprofit, written the required curriculum, and got several friends and professionals to sit on her board of directors. One of them also worked with Reebok—and thought that maybe Tullie could get some T-shirts donated for the kids.

“So I met with one of the members of the leadership team, Chief Marketing Officer Matt O’Toole, and he told me when we were setting up the meeting that he could only give me about 15 minutes,” Tullie shares. “A hour and half into that initial meeting, we were still talking. He was so excited about what we were doing, that soon after he was asking if I’d like to bring my nonprofit under the Reebok umbrella.”

Although she was flattered, she wasn’t certain it was the right step. “I worried it would turn into a marketing tool,” she says. “So I conferred with enough trusted professionals who advised me to go for it, so that’s what the board decided to do.”

Since January 2010, BOKS Kids has been building momentum.

And Tullie is more determined than ever to get kids moving. Her fun, inclusive, before-school program is designed to provide elementary-aged children with the tools they need to jump-start their day and their lives.

“Reebok’s top leaders are truly interested in getting kids moving,” she says, noting the company has invested “a few million” in the nonprofit organization. “What is so critical to the success of this program is to keep things growing virally. I call it ‘mom and dad equity,’ and if we can get parents involved in hundreds of schools across the country, I think the impact on our kids—their health, well-being, and brain development—will be profound.”

Now in 40 schools in Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, Tullie gets calls daily from administrators and parents around the country who want to launch a program at their elementary school.

In 2012, the program is also growing internationally in Amsterdam, Korea, and Japan.

“In October, we went to Japan where a large retailer that works with Reebok asked us to train their staff,” Tullie says. “It was fabulous, and especially wonderful to work with the teachers in Fukushima, where the magnitude-9.3 earthquake hit on March 11, and set off a nuclear disaster. Predictions that it’ll take 30 years to clean up the town make it impossible for kids to play outside—so the BOKS program will be helpful to them.

“That is one of those ‘pinch myself’ moments, to think that my idea is helping kids in Fukushima,” she notes, adding that her dream is to grow the program to 50,000 schools by 2020. “I think we’ll be successful if we continue at the same rate of growth we see now. When moms and dads see how easy it is to start a program and get involved—everyone wants to do it.”

Here’s how you can get involved:

Answer the following questions to ensure BOKS is a good fit for your school:

1. What time does your school start? BOKS runs for 45 minutes to an hour before school.

2. Is your school an elementary school? BOKS’ curriculum is designed for elementary school children, specifically grades K-5. In the future, BOKS hopes to offer adaptations to the curriculum to appeal to middle school children.

3. Is there enough available room for the program? Children need to be able to move around, both inside and outside.

4. Can the children get to school without the school bus? Parents must be able to transport children to school.

5. Does the principal place a high value on the need for increased physical activity? Principal endorsement and support is imperative.

6. Is there someone to lead the BOKS program? A strong lead trainer with good organizational and communication skills, plus enthusiasm for the program, is critical. Click here for talking points.

If you answered “Yes” to all of these questions, click here for the sample curriculum. And click here to continue to send an email to BOKS Kids for more information: info@bokskids.org.

If you answered “No” to one or more of these questions, please consult with your principal or superintendent to ensure the program can be successful at your school.

For additional details about BOKS Kids, visit www.bokskids.org.