By Christine Sampson
Twelve young ladies will represent the Bridgehampton School on December 2 at a 5K run at Hofstra University paired with “running buddy” volunteers from among the school’s faculty.
The students aren’t your typical varsity track stars or middle school athletes; rather, they are budding runners in grades three through five who are taking part in the school’s inaugural season of “Girls on the Run,” a program for elementary school girls that encourages social and emotional wellbeing as it trains them for a 5K run. The Bridgehampton School is the first school on the East End to launch a Girls on the Run team, and is one of 18 schools on Long Island running a team this fall.
“They have really come far,” said Meredith McArdle, a first grade teacher who leads the program at Bridgehampton with help from teacher Nina Merkert, kindergarten teacher Liz Kirwan and teaching assistant Jessica Evans. “When we first started, they could do less than one lap running on the track outside, which is an eighth of a mile. Now they are noticing their stamina is increasing.”
Girls on the Run, an international nonprofit organization formally founded in 2000, got its start in 1996 with 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina. According to its website, in 2015 the program enrolled its millionth participant and crossed the 100,000 volunteer mark. There is normally a fee associated with running the program at a school, but the Bridgehampton School qualified as a scholarship school based on a significant population of its students receiving free and reduced lunches, so Girls on the Run waived the fee.
The team meets Wednesdays and Thursdays for an hour and a half over the course of 10 weeks. Practice begins indoors, where they sit on the floor in a circle and enjoy a snack as they talk about topics such as good communication, cooperation and conflict resolution among peers and siblings. A thorough warm-up and team-building activities follow the discussion. The girls then head out to the school’s track, where they take turns running laps and cheering each other on.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the girls learned the concept of running as a team. They ran in a single file line, and periodically, the last runner would sprint up to become the first person in the line. They did this several times, practicing concepts such as pacing and observation as they did their best to stick together.
“It’s important to adjust so that everybody can work together,” Ms. McArdle told the students.
Halena Baker, a fifth grader, said she joined Girls on the Run because her mother wanted her to exercise more. She said she likes it a lot.
“It makes you feel confident,” Halena said. “When you run, it’s a cycle. You get all energized and feel good, and you get a good night’s sleep. You wake up in the morning feeling all energetic, happy, clean and relaxed.”
Summer Lillie, a third grader, said she is having fun in the program.
“I thought it would help me be more fit and energetic and make my bones more healthy,” she said. “It makes me feel really good about myself.”
Marlin Padilla, a fourth grader, agreed.
“I’m very active at home and I wanted to do something that would make me run a lot,” Marlin said. “The games we play while learning make it really fun.”
The runners each set goals. Marlin’s goal is four miles, and she’s almost hit her goal.
“I’ve gotten better at running,” she said. “I never knew I could do three miles. I’m proud of myself.”
Michael Miller, Bridgehampton’s assistant principal, who has signed up to be a “running buddy” to accompany one of the girls during their 5K run, said he was supportive of bringing in the program as soon as Ms. McArdle mentioned it to him. That’s because while the boys in the third through sixth grades previously had basketball teams to play on, the girls in those grades didn’t have anything physical to do after school. He also said the school will soon be sending its sixth grade girls to Pierson Middle School to take part in the well-known i-tri program.
“We’re giving more kids opportunities to participate in some kind of athletic avenue,” Mr. Miller said. “That’s part of what made us want to buy in. The best thing is that it is geared toward a different theme each week that is a social emotional topic. It’s all about building self-esteem and character awareness. We’re hoping that if we start young in the social emotional aspect, we’ll be moving forward in the right direction.”
Ms. McArdle said she is enjoying leading the program.
“I hope it starts to spread,” she said. “It’s pretty neat and they love it.”