Every week, more than 1,000 kids enter the gym at Riverside Elementary in Suwanee. But their experience is very different than what some might picture when they think of P.E. class.
Mike Tontillo is the P.E. teacher at Riverside, and he hopes to help his students cultivate a positive relationship with exercise so that they will continue to work out when they reach adulthood.
Located at 5445 Settles Bridge Road, Riverside Elementary’s gym is a unique facility filled with bright murals depicting things like castles and volcanoes. Some of its features include rock climbing walls, pull-up bars of varying heights and a mini “Cosmic Bowling” alley. Throughout his years working at Riverside, Tontillo always knew this vibrant gym would help kids create a positive association with exercise, but the idea was reaffirmed recently when he read an article published in The New York Times.
The class starts with a warmup and lasts 50 minutes, and Tontillo tries to keep the kids moving for at least 40. They do circuit training, alternating briskly from one workout station to the next to keep their heart rates up. Periodically, kids will stop by a red monitor in the center of the gym to check their heart rates.
“When the kids tell me that they beat their record, I tell them how excited I am because I know that they had to work really hard to make that happen,” Tontillo said.
The class includes skill sessions where the kids work on specific movements. And as the year progresses, they try to build on those skills.
“Whenever we work on skills, we always have different levels where the kids feel comfortable working,” Tontillo said. “They can always feel successful and be at a level that’s comfortable, and they can always have room for improvement to move up to the next level. That’s a big part of each lesson.” For some of the kids, this is their second or third year in the Riverside gym. Tontillo encourages kids by reminding them of their successes and how far their skills have progressed since they first began learning them.
Tontillo remembers the days in P.E. class when everyone would line up and stare while one person attempted a movement. He has tried to rewrite this kind of culture by encouraging kids to take leadership roles and help their peers. At the end of every class, The Superkid Certificate is given to about seven or eight kids who show exceptional peer leadership. The entire class applauds as Tontillo presents the award.
Second graders are the first ones to come to the gym at 8:25 every morning. For fifth graders, there is also an afterschool option — the 5th Grade P.E. Club where they can enjoy 45 minutes of exercise in a smaller group than regular classes.
And now, Riverside students also have the option to attend P.E. in the summer. Riverside’s first P.E. Summer camp was held in June 2018. Participants could sign up for one session and then decide if they wanted to do the second week. Each session was held Monday through Thursday for three hours each of the four days. Except for a 20-minute lunch break, the kids stayed active the whole time.
Tontillo recognizes that video games and cell phones are distractions that may deter some kids from playing outside. He encourages students to share stories about how they stayed active over the weekend to make them feel special for breaking a sweat on their own.
At other times, Tontillo will compare the equipment in P.E. class to adult fitness centers. He describes the machines and equipment to get the kids excited about joining a gym when they grow up.
Paraprofessional Mona Williams shares Tontillo’s passion for getting kids to stay active. In her experience, she has found both the atmosphere and the teacher in a P.E. class can impact kids’ relationships with exercise.
“Some kids love to exercise more than others, but if P.E. class is not fun, it will not be a class they look forward to,” Williams said.
She believes challenging the kids and changing up the activities is one way they will stay engaged and working towards new skills.
“The most important thing that I can do is to ensure that when my students leave the fifth grade they are successful in performing their skills and they have a positive feeling about physical activity and exercise, “ Tontillo said. “And that motivation in and of itself will have all students hopefully continue to try many different avenues to maintain their fitness through adulthood and for the rest of their lives.”