Making Fitness Fun: UNK event inspires healthy habits for area fourth graders

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Nearly 700 area fourth graders were on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus Thursday, and they all had energy to burn.

Spread out across Foster Field, the elementary students ran, crawled, jumped, threw, pushed, pulled, laughed and smiled while participating in a variety of activities led by Lopers.

“It’s all about the kids,” UNK junior Nathan Sughroue said. “They’re staying active and they’re having a lot of fun with it. If I was a fourth grader here, I know I would be having a blast.”

That’s the goal of Nebraska Kids Fitness and Nutrition Day. In its 20th year, the UNK Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences hosts the annual event so children can learn about healthy living habits in a fun and supportive environment.

At Foster Field, they competed in tug of war and Rock, Paper, Scissors races, played cornhole, Spikeball and other games, went through agility exercises and developed teamwork skills using a giant parachute. Sughroue’s station was also a team challenge, with participants scoring points by tossing a Frisbee at a tennis ball balanced on an orange cone.

“It’s important for kids to learn a way to move that they really enjoy,” said Sughroue, a physical education major from Hastings. “If they don’t find an activity they like to do, there’s a chance they won’t be as healthy when they get older.”

Most of the activities featured at Nebraska Kids Fitness and Nutrition Day can be replicated at home.

“You don’t have to be on a sports team to be physically active,” said Kate Heelan, an exercise science professor and chair of the UNK Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences. “There are many other things people can do to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Heelan, who also serves as director of UNK’s Physical Activity and Wellness Lab, created Nebraska Kids Fitness and Nutrition Day to help spread that message. She started the program with Kaiti George, now a UNK lecturer and registered dietitian who works with Loper Athletics and at Hy-Vee, which sponsors the event along with the Nebraska Beef Council.

“Nutrition education and physical fitness are such important topics,” Heelan said. “We don’t focus enough on basic nutrition skills that young kids can develop.”

Inside the Health and Sports Center, participants learned about the importance of building healthy habits through the Hy-Vee KidsFit program, and stations in Cushing Coliseum covered portion control, proper food choices and nutrition facts labels.

UNK junior Allie Chavez was part of a team teaching them about the five food groups and how to plan a well-balanced meal.

“They might not be able to control their meals at home right now, but when they get older they’ll make their own decisions and this is information they should know,” said Chavez, an elementary education major from Columbus.

In addition to educating the fourth graders, the event benefits the nearly 200 UNK students who were involved by allowing them to gain hands-on experience in their future professions. Chavez got to develop a lesson plan and test her classroom management skills while working with a large group for the first time.

“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

Watching the UNK students succeed is one of Heelan’s favorite parts of the event.

“For some of us, we only see students in the classroom, and they may engage, they may not engage,” she said. “But when you get them out in this environment, you can see how much fun they’re having and how excited they are, giving kids high-fives and doing what they love.”

The curriculum developed for Nebraska Kids Fitness and Nutrition Day is used to host similar events in Alliance, Chadron, Hastings, Imperial, McCook, Ogallala, Scottsbluff and Sidney, reaching more than 3,000 fourth graders in total.

Nothing beats the original, though.

“When the students walk into Cope Stadium or the Health and Sports Center, they’re in awe,” Heelan said. “They think it’s amazing. We’ve heard kids say, ‘I’d like to go to college here someday.’ That exposure to campus is so exciting.”