Janesville elementary school gym teacher teaches fitness for life

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
— Getting kids to run, jump and skip is one way to combat the obesity epidemic.

It also can help them do better in school.

That's the thought behind a free extracurricular program at Janesville's Roosevelt Elementary School.

The program is dubbed Funderson after gym teacher Eric Gunderson. It is so successful that it has to turn kids away. It recently won $2,000 from the ING Unsung Heroes Program.

The program recognized Gunderson as "one of the nation's most innovative educators."

Gunderson was one of 100 winners nationwide, one of only two in Wisconsin, to receive the award.

For the kids at Roosevelt, Funderson is just what its name implies: fun with their gym teacher.

"It makes you more excited (to come to school)," said fifth-grader Claire Mikkelson.

"It's like an extra gym class," said fifth-grader Sam Stried after a recent session.

The sparkle in Sam's eyes said it all: An extra gym class is one of life's pleasures.

"It's like sports. It's more fun," agreed Sam's classmate Jacob Reddy.

"You're sitting in class all day, and then you get to run around," added an equally enthusiastic Mira Sellman.

Child obesity rates have shot up over the past 30 years, with nearly one in three American children classified as overweight or obese, according to first lady Michelle Obama's initiative called Let's Move!

"If we don't solve this problem, one-third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma," according to Let's Move!

The problem stems from a cultural shift: more snacks and less walking to school, more fast food and less playing outside, bigger meal portions and more time with electronic games.

"When we were growing up, we had more time outside, and we did more playing outside on our own, and that's just not happening as much, now, for whatever reason," said Carol Tyriver, Gunderson's counterpart at Adams Elementary School. "The way we see it, if we can provide those opportunities for them, that's the route we need to take."

Indeed, Gunderson is not the only Janesville phy-ed teacher who provides such opportunities.

"A number of us have running clubs. I do walking in fall, running in the spring, other things during the course of the school year," Tyriver said.

Other schools hold family fitness nights.

The efforts are a part of what might be called the new physical education, which goes beyond traditional teaching of athletic skills and focuses on lifetime fitness.

"The main goal is to turn them on to being active at an early age," Gunderson said, "and hopefully, they'll be active when they get older."

"Chances are, they'll find something they enjoy doing and can stick with," Tyriver said. "They don't have to be on a traveling soccer team or basketball team. It may be something as simple as playing catch in the back yard."

Tyriver also pointed to the boost that young brains get from physical activity.

Before-school activities could be particularly helpful. Tyriver in 2007 toured schools in China, where she saw students exercising every morning with school staff.

"It definitely helps with classroom attentiveness and learning," she said.

"When kids are active before school, teachers have told me they see a difference in their behavior that day," Gunderson agreed.

And parents say they see a better attitude at home, he said.

Funderson can be different things, depending on the time of year. Often, it's like an extra phy-ed class, either before or after school, where kids play games that get them dashing around the gym.

A flag football Funderson happens in the fall. March Madness Club—basketball—is in the spring. There's a Runners Club and a Fit Kids Club, which is an aerobics class.

Sessions last three to four weeks. Younger kids have Funderson on Tuesdays and Thursdays, older kids Mondays and Wednesdays.

The program suffers from its success. Well over 100 have signed up for some sessions, but Gunderson can handle only 30 because of space in the small gym, he said.

The school uses a lottery system to choose participants, and Gunderson added sessions so more could join.

Still, many kids are disappointed.

"That's the tough thing about Funderson," said Gunderson, who is not paid for providing the service.

Funderson's popularity has a lot to do with its namesake. It was clear at a recent session that children respond enthusiastically to Gunderson's direction.

"Ask any Roosevelter his or her favorite class, and the answer will probably be gym, according to a random survey I conducted over six years," said parent Dave Ryan, who worked on the Unsung Heroes application. "Eric Gunderson has a real gift."

The name "Funderson," by the way, was the invention of Lisa Ryan, Dave's wife.

"Children who cannot afford (organized team) sports play alongside the children who can," according to the application. "Funderson has been equally popular with both groups. This high degree of mixing fosters a sense of equality and camaraderie.

"The children who participate in Funderson are creating positive memories of their elementary school years. They have fun, and they feel welcome here. The school belongs to them. Funderson is helping make this elementary school more than just a place to learn academics. It is a place to have fun, make friends and grow."

Gunderson said the award money will buy more equipment to be used in Funderson and regular gym classes.

Ryan called Funderson "one of those rare undertakings that turned out better than we hoped."

About the award

Roosevelt Elementary School's Eric Gunderson is one of 100 teachers nationwide who won this year's ING Unsung Heroes Award. He is one of two in Wisconsin.

The grant/recognition program comes from ING, a Netherlands-based financial-services company that has been recognizing outstanding educators for 15 years.

The 2011 winners were selected from more than 1,400 applications, according to a news release. To learn more about the winning projects, visit unsungheroes.com.

Last updated: 6:39 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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