ELLERBE — Fifth-grader Miguel Vences usually runs around the Daily Mile track at Mineral Springs Elementary School with his friends. It’s a way to rid themselves of the strain of class and to have fun.
But the friends weren’t at school Wednesday, so Miguel dutifully made solo circuits of the 0.2-mile graveled track at a desultory pace, picking up a 1-inch “unifix” cube from a jar at every pass to document the length of his 15-minute walk.
Whether he walks, jogs or runs, every student in a Richmond County elementary school has access to at least a partially completed Daily Mile track, thanks to a partnership between FirstHealth of the Carolinas and the Richmond County Schools. The Duke Endowment finances the program through its Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas initiative.
“We’re trying to influence children so they grow up to become healthy adults,” said Roxanne Elliott, policy director for FirstHealth of the Carolinas. Schools in Montgomery County also have built such tracks, so the program affects 5,000 children in two counties.
Richmond and Montgomery both are Tier 1 counties, which means they are among the poorest of North Carolina’s 100 counties and often lack access to programs that promote healthy habits. Such counties often have high rates of diabetes and other diseases that stem from poor nutrition and a lack of exercise.
Last year, students in Richmond and Montgomery counties used the tracks to walk a distance equal to five times around the Earth, Elliott said. Teachers document their students’ activity as part of the program, sending in hundreds of tracking sheets each month to program monitors. This year, those numbers should mount because the number of schools with 0.2- to 0.25-mile tracks has more than doubled.
Monroe Avenue Elementary had the first Daily Mile trail in Richmond County. Students have become so used to walking or sprinting their Daily Miles that principal Dawn Terry has sought ways to add to the experience.
This year, Terry used money from another grant to give children MP3 players to listen to on their walks. Device podcasts explain to the children how they can take up healthier habits.
Students at East Rockingham Elementary walk their new track every day, even though it isn’t technically finished, said Wendy Jordan, the school system’s director of student services, who passes the children on her way to work.
The trails are open to the public outside school hours, and are suitable for pushing a stroller.
The Daily Mile began in England and Scotland when educational researchers encountered children who could not mount a flight of stairs without becoming exhausted. Participation in those countries has reached 1,750 schools. (There is some puzzlement about the fact that both countries use the metric system and didn’t establish a Daily Kilometer.) The program since has expanded to Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Wales.
The British program boasts that within four weeks of daily walking, children become fit, more focused on academics and more aware of nature. If they walk with others, they also are said to become more sociable and apt to be team players. Evidence also suggests that their academic scores rise.
The Richmond-Montgomery County program also aims to encourage children’s healthy habits beyond the schoolyard by promoting healthier vending machine choices and the sale of healthier foods at neighborhood markets, said Elliott of FirstHealth.
At Mineral Springs, teachers for each grade schedule Daily Mile time each day — in addition to recess and lunchtime.
Some schools incorporate academics into their Daily Miles — mathematics is particularly adaptable — but principal Kate Smith does not encourage that.
“I don’t push for them to incorporate it into their lessons,” Smith said. Hitting the track is for “re-energizing and refocusing, to really promote the healthy point of it, to get your fitness on.
“(The teachers) feel like they’re doing something nice for the kids, and it’s a nice brain break.”
The only drawback to the track, Smith said, is that overly enthusiastic students sometimes fall and skin their knees.
On Wednesday, fifth-graders Zackary Cassidy and Jordan McCormick took a fast-paced jaunt around the track.
“I like it,” Zackary said. “I like it that when we get outside, we can get some fresh air.”
“And just unwind,” added Jordan.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.