Twenty-eight girls at Forest Elementary School participate in the national Girls on the Run program. Parents and other adults can use the lessons of this and similar programs to help children develop a love for fitness, teamwork and good decision-making. (Photos by Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Fourth-grader Katerine Cassidy had her doubts about running until she found out she could do it in the hallways at school.

"We get to do that when the weather is bad," said Katerine, 9, one of more than two dozen students at Forest Elementary who will spend the next several weeks in the Williamsville school's Girls on the Run program.

Twice-weekly gatherings teach the girls how to run. They will culminate in early June when the girls join elementary and middle school students from more than 100 schools across Western New York in a 5K run at the University at Buffalo North Campus.

Meanwhile, dozens of boys in six Clarence and Orchard Park elementary schools are on a similar track as part of the Boys Run On – or "BRO" – program.

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"It's not just about physical fitness," said Greg Wollen, an Orchard Park chiropractor who specializes in nutrition and pediatrics, and founded that program about two years ago. "If you can implement healthy habits and show kids that exercise can be fun and enjoyable, they're a lot more likely to carry that through to adulthood."

Wollen and other parents value the lessons their children are learning as part of the two organized programs. They see the benefits spill far beyond a foothold into fitness. And they believe families can nurture a child's pursuit of running and share in those benefits at home.

They gave the following tips adults can use to help kids along the way.

BE REALISTIC

The Girls on the Run and BRO programs – each of which have fall and spring sessions – choose to be inclusive and noncompetitive. The overarching message: Almost anyone can run. "What's nice about running is that, while you're a team, your own running is very individual," said Katie Joyce, Western New York council director for girls program, which serves those in grades 3 to 8. "No matter what your pace or mileage, it doesn't affect the team. … You're not letting anyone down."

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Still, Joyce said, “We ask the coaches to be very realistic. The girls fill out lap goals and we don’t want the girls to put down 50 if they’re only going to do 10. If they go up one or two, that sends a positive message.”

It's also important for adults to understand the limitations of young runners.

"Every child develops at different paces but when you start going below third grade, bodies aren't meant for running long-distance races," Wollen said. "And they shouldn't run as far as we adults do. Training for a half marathon under the age of 16 – and some researchers and trainers even suggest 21 – is not a good idea. Their body structure at a young age is not built for exercise in one plane of motion. Also, listen to your child if they say they are hurt, or tired. The best piece of advice I received from one of my mentors while training for my first Ironman, which is vital for kids: When in doubt, rest."

Warm up and cool down, including stretching, also are important for healthy muscle development, Woolen said.

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PUT FUN FIRST

Katerine Cassidy, 9, appreciates that her mother has volunteered to coach her after-school Girls on the Run Program. It gives her a chance to make new friends - and have fun, she says.

"By making running fun, and non-competitive," Joyce said, "girls in this age group are more likely to run on their own and maybe on the weekend go running with mom or dad, or their brother or sister."

The Forest Elementary coaches – led by Katerine's mother, Heidi Mohr – talked during a Monday after-school session about balance in fitness, school, and family life. They stopped during brief runs to write about what good balance in their lives looked like. "Every time they run," Joyce said, "there's usually a game involved and that makes it fun for the girls."

Such variety is key, Wollen said, in part because different kids excel in different skills. "Part of the fun is mixing it up," he said. "Watch kids run on a playground. How often do they run in a straight line?" Boys Run On sessions often include obstacle courses, sprints and distances, rope ladders, mini-hurdles and Speed Stacks, the latter of which is a cup-staking game that builds agility, concentration and quickness. They also play tag. "They don't think it's exercise," Wollen said. "They just think it's fun. They may have run 2 miles by just doing this, and they don't even know it."

MAKE IT MEANINGFUL

Boys Run On mentor Dan Blamowski encourages Jake Serio, 9, during a short run on Tuesday at South Davis Elementary School in Orchard Park.

Boys Run On program mentors, as part of the nine-week curriculum, encourage their charges to eat right for top performance at school and beyond, make helpful contributions at home and serve as good stewards of the environment. Parents agree to run or bike with their son at least one day a week, and to provide the best foods "for fuel" at home. Girls on the Run coaches emphasize kindness, a positive self-image and can-do attitude. They partner girls who don't know each other well to help build self-esteem, empathy and community.

"These girls are all part of this program and will bond as closely as any sports team," Joyce said. "They will support each other.  We have many, many, many girls in our 5K who are running, look back and see their best friend, and go back because all they want to do is go hand-in-hand across the finish line. That says so much about what this is about."

Many schools across the region promote that kind of running spirit. Forest Elementary, for instance, started an annual Run Forest Run 5K four years ago to raise money for a good cause, including for a student who was battling brain cancer. This year's run on April 22, Earth Day, will benefit the Food Bank of Western New York.

Such events echo the giving elements of other public running events, including the UB Run for SmilesEnvirun, and Canisius College Shoes for Shelter 5K events later this month.

STRESS TEAMWORK

Katerine Cassidy has run several 5Ks with her mother. "I like it a lot because my mom is coaching," the 9-year-old said. Still, her favorite part? "I'm making new friends," she said. "I've learned everyone's different and some people have different character traits."

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"A sense of belonging is really important at this age." Joyce said. Competitive sports await some in the program in the years go come, but right now, "If you're slow, you're slow. You're still a runner," she said. That approach stretches to her family. Joyce, her husband, Paul, and daughters Helen, 17, and Jane, 13, have become a family of runners. In recent years, they have joined cousins, aunts and uncles for the Turkey Trot. "We wear the pink flamingo hats," Joyce said. "We're the flock. We added pink tutus to the flock last year – even the guys."

LET KIDS LEAD

Chiropractor Greg Wollen, who founded the Boys Run On program two years ago, runs with his son Trevor, 10, during the program and on their own.

Kids aren’t forced to run in these programs. “We want them just moving,” Joyce said. “Walking, hopping, skipping, jumping. However they want to move forward is OK.”

Kids generally follow parents, Wollen added. “If you step back and let them lead, that creates independence in them, better decision-making and better bonding.” He gave the example of letting his 10-year-old son, Trevor, choose how they’d do a trail run one day in Chestnut Ridge Park. They had to try only to step on tree roots protruding slightly from the ground, being careful as they went.

MARRY SIMPLE GOALS, REWARDS

Girls on the Run participants sometimes get stickers, stars or colored bracelets for completing laps, and sometimes a card with encouragement. All program participants who complete the 5K events for both programs get medals – no matter how long they’re on the course. “We want them all to be excited when they cross,” Joyce said.

ADD AS YOU GO

Boys Run On mentor Kevin Wieszczecinski leads stretches at the end of an after-school class at South Davis Elementary in Orchard Park.

“Our 5K is typically a run/walk that lasts about 45 minutes,” Joyce said. “They’re not starting out running a lot; maybe 5, 10 minutes,” Joyce said, “and there’s a lot of walking that goes on, as well.” In the end, many parents who run with their daughters “are in disbelief at how well their girls have done in just 10 weeks,” she said.

Joyce encouraged parents to take younger kids to a high school or college track or cross-country event. “It’s a great way for kids to see where they can be at some point,” she said. “That’s why we like to do our 5K at UB. For some of the girls, it’s the first time they get to see a college campus. It’s a great exposure for them. A lot of the high school tracks are beautiful, too.”

Kevin Wieszczecinski, 50, an electrician, mentors for the South Davis Elementary School BRO program, which includes his son Chase, a fourth-grader. The BRO entourage on Tuesday included Chase’s brother Cody, 12, a sixth-grader, and daughter Haley, 17, a senior and member of the cross-country team at Orchard Park High School.

The family has seen eating and activity habits change as running and sports have gained in family popularity, dad said.

“It’s that trickle up effect.”

PLUG IN TO CHILD RUNNING RESOURCES

Girls on the Run: This afterschool program is in more than 100 schools in Western New York and serves girls in grades 3 to 8. It's mission is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running. For more info, and rates, visit gotrbuffalo.org.

Boys Run On: This afterschool program serves boys in grades 3 to 5 and looks to expand. It's mission is to provide a health, wellness, skills development and environmental awareness program that provides the tools, head and heart to help make boys successful in life. For more info, and rates, visit boysrunon.org.

Checkers Running Club: The club hosts a Youth Track developmental running club Tuesday evenings in the Northtowns for youngsters aged 3 and up. The club focuses on speed, direction and coordination with sprints, mini-runs and hurdles. For more information, contact coach Roger Roll at 912-9800 or rogerroll@roadrunner.com. Youngsters already running 5Ks with their parents are encouraged to run with adult club members, Roll said. The club has more than 700 members from age 3 into their 90s. Annual memberships range from $25 for students to $50 for families. Learn more at checkersac.org.

The Center for Children’s Running: This website, childrensrunning.org, has dozens of tips, as well as ideas for running-related activities.

Buffalorunners.com: This website has the most comprehensive list of local road races in the region. It also has links to 20 running clubs.

RESOURCES FROM THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARIES

"The Amazing Fitness Adventure for Your Kids," Phil Parham

"Keeping Kids Fit: A family plan for raising active, healthy children," Len Saunders

"Sneaky Fitness: Fun, foolproof ways to slip fitness into your child's everyday life, with 50 all new sneaky recipes!," Missy Chase Lapine

"Strong Kids, Healthy Kids: The revolutionary program for increasing your child's fitness in 30 minutes a week," Fredrick Hahn

"Training for Young Distance Runners," Laurence S. Greene

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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