It was exciting to walk like a penguin but leaping over obstacles really got 9-year-old Riley Duda’s heart racing.

“It was fun,” the third-grader said March 26, after completing an obstacle course at Marshall Elementary School designed to resemble the inner workings of a human heart. “I learned the heart has four chambers.”

Riley and other students at the Fort Campbell school are taking part in a Kids Heart Challenge during physical education classes with Coach Beth Hicks to learn about the human heart, how to raise or lower their pulses and have fun exercising in the process.

“The heart is the center of everything – our emotions, and our thinking and we’ve got to have that heart pumping blood,” Hicks said as she watched children leap through a “pulmonary valve” fashioned with hula hoops on the gymnasium floor. “I enjoy watching the children participate and having a good time. It does my heart good.”

Hicks will put nearly 400 students through the obstacle course over the next couple of weeks to teach them about the importance of exercise and keeping the heart active, while giving them fun activities that help them absorb lessons they learn in class.

“We want to sneak some learning in there, but mainly we want them to be moving and having lots of fun,” she said.

Marshall Elementary has taken part in the Kids Heart Challenge for the last four years but had to get more creative this year because of COVID-19 restrictions and the need to socially distance, Hicks said. Students might not be able to jump ropes the traditional way, to keep them from touching equipment, but jumping back and forth over one tied to the floor had the same impact.

Students also raised $1,132 for the American Heart Association this year. In addition to the obstacle course – which Hicks brainstormed – children can play games, log physical activities, set goals, take quizzes about CPR and learn the signs of a stroke on the Kids Heart Challenge app.

Tabitha Ware, Marshall Elementary School principal, was so intrigued by Hicks’ obstacle course, she watched the class virtually.

“I hope they learned about the four parts of the heart and I was really hoping they would be able to relate to the format, the layout, of the obstacle course to the chambers of the heart,” Ware said. “The music was phenomenal. I could see kids bouncing in rhythm with the music and completing the obstacle course. They needed that.”

German Martinez, 10, enjoyed moving to the music as he accelerated or decelerated through the course, before cooling off with Cosmic Yoga.

Jacqueline Williams, assistant principal, attended a class after Hicks sent her an invitation to see the children in action. She hopes the activities help the students make “real world connections” to their schoolwork and health.

“I love to come and visit Coach Hicks because she’s really phenomenal and enthusiastic about what she does,” Williams said. “I was here to watch the kids and let her know I appreciate what she does.”

Williams and Ware were both impressed by the class, the energy and instruction.

“It gives them more opportunities to learn the content, because it’s not just sitting and listening or learning on the computer,” Ware said. “It’s actually moving around and manipulating things and running and learning that way.”

Williams said she also got a little caught up in the tunes blasting through the gymnasium as ponytails flew and sneakers landed on the polished floor.

“I got lost in the music, and with the kids and the movement,” Williams said. “At Marshall we are always excited about doing these types of things.”

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