Holding a coffee thermos with one hand and a jump rope in the other, Clara Meinershagen watched over two students at Franklin Elementary as one skipped and the other helped twirl the rope.
The students were the first to arrive for a before-school program called Morning Moves, which is part of the Let’s Move! initiative to help kids get active and combat childhood obesity.
The program welcomes students to arrive about a half-hour before school to play with jump ropes, wiffle balls and basketballs, among others. Meinershagen, the volunteer coordinator for the program, chaperones students with the help of other volunteers. She also brings speakers and a Kidz Bop CD to energize the students.
“It gets kids active and moving in the morning, which really helps before they have to go sit down and be still all day,” Meinershagen said.
While only a couple of students participate in the first few minutes of Morning Moves, most arrive around 8:10 a.m. when buses drop them off. As more students show up, they claim the different toys, migrate to the basketball courts, and form a line for jump rope.
Francis Kickingwoman, a fourth-grader, said his favorite toy is a wiffle ball and scoop with which he plays a toss-and-catch game. He and the other students recently took turns with the toys until a couple of his friends showed up, gave him a hug and chased each other onto the lawn. Jack Satake, a fifth-grader, said he prefers dribbling a basketball up and down the concrete.
“Before, there was a lot of standing around and waiting before school so we’ve taken that idle time and turned it into active play time,” said Lisa Dworak, the Let’s Move! coordinator. “That was when kids would pick on each other, so this helps cut down on that.”
Meinershagen said students have told her that they used to be late for school, but now they’re consistently on time because they want to come early to play.
The program also helps some parents who have to get to work by allowing them to drop students earlier, as well as families who don’t always have the opportunity to “pay to play,” Dworak said.
Let’s Move! Was created after the Missoula City-County Health Department began thinking about where kids in Missoula stood in relation to the national childhood obesity epidemic. The health department began collecting data on childhood obesity in Missoula through the BMI Third-Grade Surveillance Program in Missoula County schools.
The most recent data from 2017 found that just under 25 percent of Missoula third-graders are obese or overweight. When comparing two low-income schools in Missoula with two high-income schools, the agency found that an average of 44 percent of third-grade boys in the low-income schools were overweight or obese, compared to an average of 20 percent of boys who were overweight or obese in the schools classified as high-income.
To address the differences, Let’s Move! decided to target schools with higher populations of low-income students. They organized Morning Moves at four MCPS schools. The program starts at 8 a.m. each morning at Franklin, Lowell and Russell Elementary schools. Hawthorne Elementary opts for extra play time during lunch because the school is still under construction.
Morning Moves is a partnership between the Missoula Parks and Recreation MORE program, the University of Montana, United Way of Missoula County, MCPS, the Missoula Family YMCA and the Missoula City-County Health Department. Meinershagen said they also work with the company ClassPass, which donates hours to employees who volunteer.
Meinershagen said the program is always looking for more volunteers and that anyone interested in helping can sign up through the program’s website.