Willow Oaks

Willow Oaks

Featured Program Site: Willow Oaks

It’s 3:15 on a Wednesday afternoon at Willow Oaks Elementary School in Menlo Park, Calif. On a sun-dappled lawn, Fit Kids Coach Gabe Brewer carefully places cones, rope ladders, hurdles and medicine balls to outline the playing fields and form the obstacle course that will challenge and delight the dozens of students participating in the two Fit Kids classes, running from 3:30-5:30.

Then, Gabe wrist-flicks frisbee style the flat colored discs that mark a spot for each student to stand. The discs land precisely, ensuring the kids will be stationed close enough to each other to feel like a team, yet out of arm’s reach, so there is no horseplay. Even with such precision, Gabe tosses the discs casually, so practiced at his craft that he also can handle a pre-class check-in chat with a Fit Kids staffer.

“Do I like being a Fit Kids coach?” Gabe repeats the question. “I love it!”

“Are the kids picking up on it? Yes, we’re about six weeks into the school year, and you see it in their running. They have better wind. Their increases in strength are slower to come, but they will. They’re also picking up vocabulary, like ‘quad stretch.’ And they understand the order we do things: warm-up, workout, and games.”

Asked if some students can be challenging, Gabe answers with a knowing smile. “Of course! Just on certain days. You can just sometimes tell it’s going to be one of those days. And it’s usually the same one or two kids.”

But as the class of kindergartners and first-graders runs out onto the field to greet Gabe and his co-coach, Brenda Flores, it is clear they are excited. And when those one or two students do start up – in this case arguing about who gets to stand on the orange spot – Brenda quickly, quietly defuses the situation, while Gabe steadily leads everyone else through their warm-ups and has them all counting in unison.

Gabe’s command stems largely from peppering his instruction with positive reinforcement, by name, for the kids he catches doing things right. “Good work, Pedro.” “You got this, Bexave.” He also provides some mild encouragement – “Come on!” – to those he sees slacking off or letting their attention drift.

After a quick water break, the class splits into two so that Gabe and Brenda are each managing a smaller group. That allows for more individualized attention from the coaches and gives the kids a chance to pair up with a buddy for fun, team-building exercises, such as high-fiving each other from a plank position. Working with an odd number of kids, Brenda hits the deck to partner with one of them.

When it’s time for another water break, Gabe and Brenda have to lift some kids to reach the drinking fountain. When it’s time to hustle back to the field, no child is more than five feet behind the main pack. Nobody wants to be left behind or miss out on any bit of attention they can get from their coaches.

Throughout the workout, disguised as an obstacle course and a relay race, the encouragement continues. At the end of the course lies a tic-tac-toe board made out of hula hoops. The kid who gets through the course first gains an advantage by having the chance to drop his or her disc into the most favored tic-tac-toe position.

What was supposed to be just a fun activity that let kids run around is now a mild form of competition, an acculturation to the rewards that effort can yield, and an intellectual exercise in tic-tac-toe board management. There are also gentle admonishments from Gabe and Brenda for anyone trying to cut corners. 

Without underestimating the importance of fun and games for these kids, clearly, there is much more than just fun and games going on here.