How to start an elementary school running club

Offering a running club is a great way to increase physical activity at your school. Make it fun for the kids, make it easy for the teachers and recognize student achievement; and you are on your way to helping build a healthy community. Running clubs are a wonderful supplement to Physical Education, and can scale to reach more students, more frequently, more easily than just about any other program.

You don’t need to purchase our product to get started, but you do want a plan of some kind for tracking the laps and other data when the run club grows. Schools use our technology to save time and motivate their students.

The first thing you should do is talk with the principal about your idea. It’s their school to run and everything that happens there is ultimately their responsibility. The running club should operate in a way that aligns with their vision for the school. You won’t need a lot of their time but you do need some.

An elementary school principal will typically expect the following goals for a running club:

  • Fun – not overly competitive
  • Safe – not overly strenuous
  • Inclusive – anyone can join, regardless of ability
  • Organized – with responsible adults supervising
  • Fair – rules and rewards should be consistent
  • Timely – the club schedule fits into or around the school schedule

Facility is next, figure out where and when the kids will run. You want a safe course that is ideally 1/8th to 1/4th of a mile. Courses that are longer than 1/4th mile can work well for older students, but you don’t want the younger ones too far away so you can supervise. Courses shorter than 1/8th mile can get congested with more students at the finish line and generate more lap data that has to be managed.

Measure the distance of your track or course with a smartphone app or measuring wheel. Backstops, trees or benches can define the loop or get cones to mark the perimeter. Choose what is convenient, safe and easy; you can lengthen the course later when you have more participants and helpers.

Start small by offering the club to just one grade or a few classrooms initially. Generally speaking, 2nd and 3rd grades are the “sweet spot” for participation. Their bodies have grown enough where they can do a lot but they don’t quite yet know everything like some of the older students.

If you’re running before school, allow enough time for families to find out the club is happening and add it to their routine. For example, meet Tuesdays/Thursdays before school for 3 weeks. Put an announcement in the school newsletter. Talk with teachers that are supportive, they’ll encourage their students to participate and help get the word out to parents. Some of our biggest advocates are teachers of energetic little boys!

Track laps from day 1 Just like adults, kids want to know how they’re doing and they will respond to that measurement in a positive way. While your club is in its “getting started” phase, it’s easiest use lap cards with a hole punch or sharpie marker to tally completed laps at the finish line. This collects the data for each child in one step, but it won’t be centralized, which limits what you can report efficiently.

Popsicle sticks or tickets are slightly faster than lap cards at the finish line, but they require more work after the kids have run their laps. You have to collect the sticks and record the count per student in a log or spreadsheet. Either way, please do not send kids back into the classroom and expect the teachers to count, track and report laps – they have better things to do!

(When I left IBM to run this company full time, I explained the popsicle sticks to some of the people I worked with and how Student Lap Tracker solves that problem. They could simply not believe that in this day and age, in this country, some of our teachers actually have to spend valuable classroom time counting popsicle sticks!)

Incentive Awards are great motivators. They can be modest but they do need to be awarded fairly, consistently and reliably. This is why I recommend starting with a smaller group initially. Without a system like ours in place to manage it, it’s on you to keep those kids’ laps tracked accurately. And like the salesman who claims he can’t add, yet can find a dollar missing from his commission statement, some of your students will become expert data analysts and have lots of questions about their mileage total and when they’re going to get their next award.

Review what your club has done so far. Discuss growing the club with your principal and consider:

  • Was the start a success?
  • What logistical problems need to be worked out with the facility or schedule?
  • Were students outside the initial group interested in joining in?
  • Were teachers, staff or parents interested in helping?
  • Did the classroom teachers think their students were better prepared to learn after running?
  • Does the running club align with the principal’s vision for the school?
  • Will the running club help build a healthy community?