Twenty years ago in Charlotte, N.C., a young woman began the first Girls On the Run (GOTR) team as an individual effort. But when the program was covered in Runner’s World, a running-focused magazine, the demand for this girls-specific running program exploded. Today, GOTR has more than 200 councils across all 50 states, serving more than 200,000 girls each year.
The program’s rapid growth presented the young organization with the challenge and opportunity to develop a more structured curriculum, according to Dr. Heather Pressley, senior vice president of mission advancement.
“The team at headquarters realized that the organic growth was great but it was very fast, [and] we needed to look into the quality and consistency of the program across sites where it was being offered,” Pressley said. “We took the original concept of building confidence through running and created an intentional curriculum with measurable physical, social, emotional, and life skills outcomes.”
As a physical-activity-based positive youth development (PAPYD) program, GOTR’s intentional curriculum successfully integrates both a SEL component to girls’ health, as well as a physical activity component that overlaps with the National AfterSchool Association’s (NAA) Healthy Eating & Physical Activity (HEPA) standards. According to Pressley, GOTR sees both these elements as necessary in addressing the whole health needs of all girls and the communities they serve.
According to Pressley, a longitudinal study conducted at the University of Minnesota shows that the program drives transformative change in the lives of girls, and therefore GOTR has a particular obligation to make the program available in communities that have limited access to quality afterschool programs. This includes underrepresented and minority populations that may not have the same opportunity for physical activity and sports programming as their white counterparts.
“So in addition to getting girls active and keeping them active after the program ends, the SEL component teaches life skills that girls need to navigate their worlds,” Pressley said. “How [to] manage emotions, communicate effectively, be intentional in their decision making. Our research [conducted by the University of Minnesota] shows that girls then use these skills at school and at home, which benefits their community at large.”
The physical activity component of the program is especially apparent. Throughout the course of a ten week program, participants in the 3rd through 8th grades engage in age-appropriate strength and conditioning activities as well as fun running games and activities that incorporate movement. The program culminates in a celebratory 5K event, where participants experience a sense of accomplishment for achieving their goals.
With regard to healthy eating and nutrition, the curriculum is led by trained volunteer coaches and focuses on self-care, balance, and intentional decision-making, all of which develop healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Throughout the season, girls are participating in activities that address HEPA standards and have been structured by GOTR to also develop SEL skills, such as self-confidence and teamwork.
When asked what recommendations Pressley had for other programs looking to combine SEL and HEPA standards into their programming, she emphasized the importance of intentionality.
“Start with your outcomes in mind. Don’t leave anything to chance and make sure your program activities meet your goals,” said Pressley. “Include the youth you serve in the process to ensure it’s relevant and engaging. If you want to teach conflict resolution, ask kids, ‘What are conflicts you are dealing with?’ And then teach the skills that would help navigate those challenges.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Girls On the Run or how to bring the program to your area, you can visit their website. To learn more about out-of-school time programs that are fostering health and well-being practices for our youth, you can visit the national Healthy Out-of-School Time (HOST) Coalition website.