New program addresses lack of access to sports programs for Birmingham sixth graders

YesYES! We can PLAY partners hope to ultimately impact students’ ability to integrate physical activity and nutritional information into their lives moving forward.The Birmingham City Schools Department of Athletics and Department of Physical Education and Health and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center have partnered to bridge the local sports programming gap through YES! We can PLAY: A Physical Activity and Nutritional After-School Program for 6th Graders.

The project is supported by a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health and Office on Women’s Health.

In Alabama middle schools, sixth graders are affected by a unique sports programming dilemma — they no longer have time for recess as elementary school-aged students do, but are ineligible to play on sports teams available to seventh and eighth graders. It leaves those without the means to access club or recreational sports very few options for participating in organized sports. For many Birmingham City Schools system students, options to stay active outside of school are restricted as well.

“BCS students often live in communities that have limited, if any, informal physical activity options outside of school,” said Lori Bateman, Ph.D., principal investigator for YES! We can PLAY and program director of the UAB Obesity Health Disparities Research Center. “Lack of both informal and organized physical activity opportunities may lead to sixth graders’ dropping out of sports participation altogether. This is particularly concerning since the transition between middle and high school is associated with less physical activity, which is a health issue that must be addressed.”

Henry Pope, BCS athletic director, has noticed the issue as well.

“Sixth grade is a time when we lose athletes because, when they’re looking for things to do, there are no sports offered,” Pope said. “We needed a program to address the gap between elementary school and middle school, which is why we collaborated with UAB for YES! We can PLAY.”

YES! We can PLAY partners hope to ultimately impact students’ ability to integrate physical activity and nutritional information into their lives moving forward. The program comes at a critical point in students’ lives. Research suggests that lower health status during formative years contributes to poorer health outcomes later in life, while effective health interventions during youth have positive health impacts on people throughout their lifespan.

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“We want to get children physically active, moving and enjoying what they do,” said Sherri Huff, program specialist for physical education, health and driver education. “YES! We can PLAY helps keep them involved and provides interest by adding another dimension on the few opportunities that exist. An increased variety of organized sport activities will allow students to participate in getting and staying healthy.”

For six months, sixth graders will have the opportunity to participate in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day after school, with healthy eating and social-emotional learning components also integrated for greater potential for positive results in student behavior.

The program, an extension of a collaborative partnership between BCS and UAB and led by the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center, will begin in five BCS middle schools — Bush Hills, Hayes, Hudson, Putman and Wilkerson — this month. It will eventually expand to 11 middle schools, with an anticipated goal of reaching more than 1,000 students.

“We want to get kids interested and excited about sports and help them get prepared to play sports, so that ultimately, there are increased levels of physical activity present throughout their lives,” said Bateman, an instructor with the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. “In terms of research, we’re interested in seeing if this type of program can be effective as an intervention. Our hope is that, if effective, we can make YES! We can PLAY a sustainable program in Birmingham City Schools that will be available to sixth graders for as long as needed. BCS may become a model for other school districts, if future trials show that the program is effective in different settings as well.”