Kids can learn all kinds of skills, from community responsibility to the arts, in after-school programs. But BOKS—Build Our Kids' Success—is a free, before-school fitness program aimed at getting kids moving in the morning so their minds are ready for a day of learning. Its mission is to promote the benefits of physical activity for mind, body and community.
"When kids love physical activity, they're going to do it for the rest of their lives," says Kathleen Tullie, BOKS's founder and a mother of two.
After Tullie left an 18-year career in real estate finance, she lasted only a few months as a stay-at-home mom. Inspired by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey's book "Spark," which describes the profound effect that exercise has on the mind, she initiated a before-school physical activity program at her kids' elementary school. Within a couple of weeks, 80 kids had signed up.
"What I like to call 'The Word of Mom' spread to other schools in surrounding communities, and parents were calling me to ask if they could have a copy of the curriculum to run the program at their kids' schools," she says. "That was my 'aha' moment."
When Ratey agreed to join her board of directors, Tullie's "Aha!" moment turned into "Oh no!" — as in, "Now I really have to do this!"
Kathleen teamed up with two other moms—Jen Lawrence, a CrossFit and PTO member, and Cheri Levitz, a PTO president—to develop a curriculum for two 12-week sessions during the school year. After the program was established, physical education teacher Jen Pascarelli jumped on board to further enhance the curriculum. When the Reebok Foundation caught wind of the movement, it added its support, and BOKS was born.
Building Kids' Success
BOKS is built on the simple fact that physical activity, especially before school, can improve both classroom performance and behavior. It teaches motor skills, functional fitness movements, teamwork and playing with kids of different ages.
"I had a special needs teacher say to me during a course, 'I've never had anything make such a difference in the lives of our kids,'" Kathleen says. "According to Dr. Ratey's book, exercise for 15 to 20 minutes at 60 to 80 percent of the normal heart rate has the effects of a small dose of Ritalin or Prozac. BOKS is mental medicine; it's preparing kids for a day of learning by releasing natural drugs in the body."
Each day, BOKS trainers guide kids through a 45-minute lesson plan that includes a running-related activity, a skill of the week and BOKS Bits, nutritional tips developed by Tufts Medical Center that kids can relate to and share at home. For example, kids learn about the sugar content of a serving of soda by comparing it to a stack of sugar cubes, and they learn how to easily determine whether foods and supplements are relatively healthy. The message is always positive: Foods are categorized as "super" or "sluggish" based on how kids feel after they eat.
"The simplicity of BOKS is what makes it so effective," Tullie says. "Anybody can become a BOKS trainer—whoever has the passion to make a difference in the lives of our children, from parents and teachers to nurses and custodians. All we need is one champion in every school."
More than 1,000 schools in more than 40 states and six countries are enrolled in BOKS. Besides the Reebok Foundation, it also receives support from MetroWest Health and The Boston Foundation and has partnered with organizations such as Partnership for Healthier America and Alliance for a Healthier Generation. BOKS has been endorsed by famous athletes, such as NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, and it was honored by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
According to a BOKS satisfaction survey, 96 percent of kids say they want to come back for the next session.
"The demand for exercise and physical activity is out there among kids, so it's our responsibility as adults and parents to make opportunities like BOKS available to them," Tullie says.
She wants everyone to get involved with the movement, make a difference and feel the reward: "I want to take BOKS to the next level and get as many kids moving as we can. One school at a time."