Missourians aren’t known for leading the most healthy lifestyles, but the Mattie Rhodes Center is hoping to break that trend.
To promote health and wellness in youngsters, Mattie Rhodes is capitalizing on a popular sport in Kansas City – soccer.
Mattie Rhodes has partnered with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department and the U.S. Soccer Foundation to offer “Soccer for Success,” a program developed by the U.S. Soccer Foundation. According to the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s website, the program is a free after-school program that “uses soccer as a tool to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles for children in under-resourced urban communities.”
The 12-week program combines soccer fundamentals with interactive lessons about nutrition and healthy eating as well as the value of leading a healthy lifestyle.
“What really caught my attention is it’s not an ordinary soccer program where they just kick the ball and just focus on soccer,” said Tony Navarro, Mattie Rhodes community services specialist. “The primary focus is on physical activity, nutrition, mentorship and family engagement.”
“It (Soccer for Success curriculum) aligns with the objectives we have here at Mattie Rhodes with our health and wellness programming and youth development,” said Susan Garrett, Mattie Rhodes director of community services. “It’s all about access for underserved kids and how we can get the kids moving and expose them to the game of soccer.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 65.2 percent of Missouri adults are overweight and 30.5 percent are considered obese. Those trends also carry on to Missouri youth. In the two to five-year-old age group, 16.2 percent are overweight and 13.6 percent are obese. In adolescents, 14.4 percent are overweight and 14.4 percent are obese.
Working through the Local Investment Commission (LINC) after-school program, Mattie Rhodes has launched the co-ed soccer program for grades kindergarten through second at three Kansas City Public Schools: Garfield Elementary, Whittier Elementary and J.A. Rogers Elementary. Mattie Rhodes plans to launch another 12-week session at the three schools this spring.
“I love it. I love soccer,” said Garfield Elementary first grader Zaire Aday. “I learned to eat healthy and eat healthy things.”
Asked to name off healthy items, Aday said bananas, oranges, and fruits in general are prime examples. Asked why one should eat healthy, Aday said, “So, you can get stronger and you can get muscles.”
About 100 youth enrolled in the fall Soccer for Success program, and at each school, the youngsters meet three times a week for 90 minutes.
“Everything is centered around health and wellness, teamwork, character building, life skills and that kind of thing, but the hook is soccer,” Garrett said.
One creative way the program teaches youngsters about nutrition is through the warm-up stretches. Students will “peel the banana” or “chop up the lettuce.” They’ll also do “high knees,” also known as “stomping the grapes.” When the group divides into teams, the students have to come up with team names that involve something healthy. One time, the group named themselves the “Blueberry Thunder.”
“We incorporate health messages in fun ways that resonate with the kids and stick with the kids,” Garrett said.
Lesson topics have included Eating Habits: Full vs. Hungry; Healthy Bodies; Food Groups; Grains; Fruits; the importance of sleep and more.
When the youngsters learned about grains, they played a game where they had to dribble the soccer ball and then “plant” their grain, represented by a jersey, by setting their jersey onto the ground. As more youngsters planted their grains, they had to dribble their balls around the jerseys, so as not to destroy the newly planted grains.
Navarro said he’s already witnessing changes in the students.
Several shy children, who wanted to stay on the sidelines, have broken out of their shells and are actively participating, he said. One kindergartener at J.A. Rogers refused to play initially and sat in the corner.
“Now, he’s like, ‘Hey, coach! Hey, coach! Can I be goalie?’ He wants to learn all about it. He loves it so much,” Navarro said.
Some of the students in the program are considered obese, Navarro said, and are beginning to incorporate more physical activity into their lives.
“I ask them, ‘What are you doing on the weekends?’ ‘Oh, I’m actually running or I’m playing with my ball now,’” he said. “Hopefully down the road, that can make an impact on them.”
When Garfield hosted its Halloween party, the soccer students pointed out how the party snacks weren’t healthy and how they shouldn’t be eating them.
“It sticks. They do get something out of it (soccer program),” Garrett said.
Navarro said Mattie Rhodes hopes to expand the program in the future and hopes the lessons will continue to resonate with youngsters and change their unhealthy habits permanently.
“I’d really like to seem them be active,” Navarro said, “and as long as they have a smile on their face, that’s all that matters.”