WESLEY CHAPEL — Candy Suarez could have shown her students a video.
Instead, the Sand Pine Elementary teacher decided to challenge them during the 20 minutes they have each Wednesday between art and lunch.
So Suarez took the 23 fourth- and fifth-graders out to the school bus loop and had them measure it. Six times around, it turned out, equaled 1 mile.
Her next question was the obvious one: How many of them could run that mile before lunchtime came?
"I had four, maybe five, kids do it, and that was on the (shorter) interior of the loop," Suarez recalls.
But over time, the kids rose to the challenge, one by one. They started running the longer exterior loop, and more of them were completing the mile, first within 11 minutes, then 10, and some even faster.
And along the way, they also found themselves becoming a closer knit class.
"We all do it together and we help each other," said Alexa Trout, 11, after finishing her run. "We all encourage each other."
That teamwork has translated into the classroom, Suarez said. The kids have regular class meetings where they hash out problems and complaints or issues they have with one another.
"This has helped bring the class together," Suarez said.
That's a welcome byproduct from what was at first a simple way to help her students meet the state's new physical education mandate.
At the behest of Gov. Charlie Crist, lawmakers required all elementary school students to receive at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. But schools were left to their own devices as to how to accomplish that goal.
Some beefed up regular P.E. classes. Others told teachers to organize recess. Still others resorted to classroom health lessons.
One option was to use a video that included information and some follow-along activities.
Suarez's class got a mix of all the options — two days of P.E., three days of recess. And they cheered the opportunity to get outside and run instead of watching the "weird" video that many of their schoolmates endure.
"It's not just sitting there and basically sleeping at your desk," said Jacob Santiago, 9. "You get to have lots of energy and you want to run a lot. It helps you release energy so you're not just bored in class."
Right after art class, the class heads straight for the bus loop. They roll up whatever paintings or drawings they've made and shove them between the links of the nearby fence and immediately begin stretching while waiting for Suarez to signal that their 10 minute countdown has started.
Justin Boles, 10, jumps out well ahead of the pack soon after the timer begins. He's a competitive hockey player who runs for training all the time.
Before some of the others have completed a single lap, Justin is into his third time around the loop.
After he finishes, somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes, he swigs some water and then cheers on his classmates, some of whom have slowed to a walk.
He said he enjoys the time spent sprinting around the bus loop.
"It's fun," Justin said. "You get more exercise and it makes you better."
That's the truth, others agreed.
"I used to (run) five times around my house a year ago," said Emilea Hill, 10. "Now I can do 20 times. … It's really helped our endurance a lot."
K.J. Brown, sweaty and out of breath after his mile, deemed the run "hard work," but quickly added that he enjoys the challenge.
"You get bonuses and you get exercise," said K.J., 10. "It's my favorite activity."
After months of trying, just one student — 10-year-old Amy Boudreaux — has yet to complete the mile. Amy admitted that her flip-flops have something to do with it.
She knows that Wednesdays bring the mile challenge. It's right there on the classroom white board — first comes math, then reading and content, then "art, run, lunch." Yet she just can't (maybe won't is more accurate) bring herself to remember running shoes.
"I don't like running," Amy said, sitting among friends who teased her about her floppy white sandals. "I like basketball and stuff like that. I just don't like running laps."
Suarez didn't complain. She simply encouraged her students to do their best.
"There's always that positive that comes with exercise and meeting a goal," she said. "I've seen real improvement with the dedication that they've shown. And they do interact really well."
She only hoped that she will have a schedule next year that will make it as easy to fit in the physical activity requirement as it has been this year.
"It's important, and I know it's important," Suarez said. "It's just another goal without funding. It doesn't take any training. It just takes time."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614.