Two children sit in a boat. The sun shines over the clear waters as they embark on their latest aquatic adventure. The sea is as green as grass.
In fact, it is grass. The boat is a bench in a school playground, and the children are enjoying one of their four 15-minute recesses.
This creativity is the result of a project created by Debbie Rhea, professor and associate dean of research at Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University. Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N’ Kids, or LiiNK, is focused on combining education with developing children’s social, physical and emotional health.
The program includes both recess and lessons, titled “Positive Action,” in curriculum designed to teach character development. Values taught in lessons include honesty, empathy and respect.
Putting the lessons in front of the students teaches them how to solve problems on their own, said Daniel Gallagher, assistant superintendent for educational services with Little Elm Independent School District.
Rhea visited Finland in 2012 after reading an article by the Smithsonian institution about Finland’s rise in education. She said the article inspired her to visit the country for six weeks and learn about the system.
She said she realized the environment of the American school system had changed from when she was a child. Students fidgeted more and there were more behavioral problems.
Little Elm ISD superintendent Lowell Strike heard about the program when Rhea introduced it to Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, where Strike worked at the time. When he moved to work at Little Elm, he gave Rhea a call saying he would like to start the program in the town.
After one year using the program, Little Elm ISD recognized a reduction in overall Body Mass Index for students, fewer behavioral problems and percentage increases in math and reading scores.
“It’s like writing a piece of music and hearing it played,” Rhea, a piano player since childhood, said when asked about the project’s realization.
Chavez, Hackberry and Oak Point Elementary schools began using the program for Kindergarten and First grades in the 2016-17 school year. The LEISD Board of Trustees voted to implement the program districtwide in March. All six elementary schools will have the program for kindergarten and first grades, and the first three schools will roll LiiNk into their second grades in the coming school year.
The ultimate goal is to have the project working in K-5 in all schools, Gallagher said.
Little Elm will be the first district to be “fully LiiNKed.” LiiNK has debuted in Texas and Oklahoma so far, but Rhea looks forward to the program making an impact in the whole country.
“The recess just gives their brain a break. It helps reboot and recharge them, so they’re ready to learn when they come back into the classroom,” said Cecelia Jones, assistant director for communications services with Little Elm ISD.
Rhea said the same goes for teachers. While at first many expressed fears of being overloaded with the extra recess time, the year ended with the same teachers noticing the benefits of the program on their students.
This was because Rhea taught intentional teaching so the limited time in the classroom could be used to its best ability.
“What they found was that the teachers realized they had the downtime they needed on the playground which helped them reload and re-enegrize, so they were ready to be intentional when they were in the classroom.”
Rhea said she was considering establishing a similar program for secondary schools, but has concerns. Students at the secondary age are generally less active, and Rhea said this would create the “perfect storm” for no success. She wants to find the best possible environment to try the program in if she were to test it for secondary schools.
Meanwhile the predicted 1,430 students who will benefit from the program in the coming school year can look forward to coming home every day with dirt underneath their fingernails having dug for fossils or arranging stones in a game all their own.