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DAVISVILLE, W.Va. -- It's 7:15 a.m., still dark outside Wood County's Kanawha Elementary School. In 15 minutes, school buses will roll up to the door. Sleepy-eyed kids will spill into the school.
In the gym, Principal Mike DeRose and gym teacher Vicki Lacey are hauling stuff out of a closet: crates of jump ropes, huge rubber balls, tummy scooters. They spread giant plastic bowling pins, hopscotch sheets and hula hoops across the gym floor, creating colorful, instant activity stations.
"Every morning, we get these kids moving for a half hour before school," Lacey said.
"They used to come in off the buses and just sit on the bleachers, waiting for school to start. Now we work their bodies and get their heart rate up. They have fun, then they're alert and ready to sit down and work."
State Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple is encouraging each school to add at least 15 minutes of physical activity a day to their schedule. Kanawha Elementary needs no encouragement. "This school is doing what she hopes to see all over the state," Lacey said.
A former physical education teacher, DeRose is a fan. "They need this," he says, pulling jump ropes out of a crate. "Actually, they need a whole lot more than 15 minutes. Over my 29 years in the schools, I've seen a change in the kids. They've gotten much less active. They're sitting around a lot more, and they're getting heavier. That's not good."
Physical education time has dropped as the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act escalated, he says. "P.E. is getting crowded out of the schedule. We're trying to fill that gap."
Maybe because Wood County has emphasized physical activity in recent years, the county's obesity rate is significantly lower than the state average: 22 percent, compared with 29 percent.
At 7:30, the buses pull up outside the school. Kids pour through the doors, strip off coats and pile them on cafeteria tables. Some head for breakfast. Others head for the gym.
They know what to do. Within minutes, the gym is rocking with bouncing, jumping, rolling, scooting kids. Nobody's telling them what to choose. "The rule is, pick anything you want to do, but no fighting and no sitting," DeRose says.
Research shows that when kids are allowed to choose activities, they get more actual exercise, he says. The kids have choices, within a structure. At a different time of day, this would be called a "structured recess."
Within minutes, in one corner, kids are doing push-ups on a plastic sheet. At one end of the gym, they propel up and down on tummy scooters. On the other side, they're rolling down a long plastic sheet as human bowling balls, knocking down plastic pins.
Laughter and excited talking echoes off the walls, mixed with the thwack-thwack of jump ropes.
DeRose is circulating, chatting and patting kids on the shoulder. "These are country kids," he says. Sixty-six percent of the school's 315 kids are eligible for reduced price meals.
In the center court, a dozen kids are bouncing on huge, colorful rubber balls. To one side, big jump ropes circle. Boys are out-jumping the girls. In another corner, three kids are making up a game with hula hoops and a jump rope.
"I love it," DeRose enthuses. "Gets the blood going. Gets brain cells stimulated! Reduces classroom problems too, you know?"