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PhYSical literacy

A new 'physical literacy' program called KidsMove is rooted in the training methods of Nash, the retired Canadian basketball legend

Lucy Neville-Hadley, 10, a grade 6 student at Grandview Elementary School, leaps over an obstacle while participating in the KidsMove program at the Fortius Sport & Health facility in Burnaby, B.C.

Shouts and laughter fill a large gym in the Vancouver suburbs as some 50 kids in Grades 5 to 7 are put through their paces, from swings of a baseball bat to wobbling while standing on one leg on foam squares. Before and after the swirls of activity, there are talks about the value of sleep and a discussion of passion and purpose in one's life.

"Stay awesome!" offers 11-year-old Justice Smith, as instructor Akriti Sharma tallies the kids' ideas of purpose on an easel board.

Welcome to KidsMove, a new program based in Burnaby that seeks to teach "physical literacy" to children ages nine through 12. The core idea behind KidsMove is that gym class is as valuable in life as math or English – taking a fun yet scientific approach to physical education that treats learning how a body moves and works with the same seriousness as schools treat algebra or reading fiction. A driving motivation for the program is the challenging backdrop of health issues affecting Canadian children, everything from inactivity to sugar and obesity. KidsMove is at the starting line right now, but its founders and backers believe it could become a template of physical literacy among kids across North America.

The roots of the program and its methods start with Steve Nash, the retired Canadian basketball legend, and his work with B.C. physiotherapist Rick Celebrini. With the help of Celebrini, Nash, as a young professional player, overcame a wonky back, a condition called spondylolisthesis that causes vertebral slippage. On the court, Nash was one of the best passers and shooters in National Basketball Association history – but it was made possible off-court by careful, grinding physical drills to make sure his back and body held up to the physical pounding of professional basketball.

Early in his career, Nash connected with Celebrini and the two came to work closely together. The key period was when Nash had turned 30. It was 2004, and he was about to join the Phoenix Suns, where his career would really take off. Nash and Celebrini spent the summer working at the University of British Columbia, on the court, in the weight gym, on forested trails and in the ocean. They devised a series of exercises, focused around core strength, that fortified Nash and his back.

A decade later, in 2014, Celebrini started on a plan to bring his elite-level work with Nash to children, the genesis of KidsMove.

Celebrini brought in local colleagues who worked with the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks and Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps, as well as Olympic athletes, with specialties in physiology, psychology and strength and conditioning. For one winter, the group developed their program with an Atom hockey team that Celebrini's sons played on. Nash heard of what Celebrini was up to and got his own foundation – whose main focus is healthy kids – involved.

"Steve embodies the things we're trying to teach," said Celebrini, who also works with the Canucks and Whitecaps. "He's a super-active kid, really, at 43. That's the way he'll always live his life."

The Fortius Sport and Health centre in Burnaby has become the home for the small but growing KidsMove program. Fortius staff help run KidsMove and the facility hosts groups of children in its big gym. The first KidsMove sessions were staged at Fortius in July, 2016, for kids from the region. This fall, KidsMove expanded to host its first school group, a 10-week program for the 50 or so students from Grandview Elementary, a school in East Vancouver where the majority of pupils are Indigenous.

Grandview Elementary School students participate in the KidsMove program at the Fortius Sport & Health facility in Burnaby, B.C.

KidsMove is further expanding this month to include six schools from the Burnaby School District.

Fortius, where Celebrini co-founded the medical-services program, is best known as a place for top-level sports. Canada's national women's soccer team has trained there and the Toronto Raptors have staged several training camps at the centre. But Fortius has also strived to welcome as diverse an audience as possible. With KidsMove, Fortius brings the kids into a facility they might not otherwise see.

It does not come cheap.

Between the facility and all the adults involved to run the program, the cost is $20,000 to cover 10 sessions for 50 children. Add in busing costs of $5,000 and the total is $25,000. It's free for the kids and the schools – but the price tag remains $500 a child; a program based on pro-calibre techniques honed by Steve Nash costs a lot.

The money is coming from Fortius's charitable arm, the Fortius Foundation, although it has yet to raise all the cash needed to take KidsMove through its full 2017-18 plans. The Steve Nash Foundation has been a supporter, as have local corporate and individual donors. John Tognetti, chairman of Vancouver investment firm Haywood Securities, helped underwrite the Grandview kids. Tognetti attended Grandview as a boy.

KidsMove sessions run two hours and there are at least a half-dozen adults involved. Children in Grades 5 through 7 are considered an ideal age to learn the ideas the program seeks to impart – the kids are old enough to take in specifics of various techniques and appreciate and absorb mottoes such as "set goals," "work hard" and "have fun," which are posted on signs around the gym.

On a recent Thursday morning, Fortius program leader Akriti Sharma began with a refresher on the previous week's lesson about the value of sleep. Then there was a minute of silence, a kind of beginners' meditation for children. There was barely a peep.

The kids were thereafter set loose, guided through activities in four groups. Across the gym, all the kids participated with at least some amount of gusto. There were no losers and nobody was picked last. Girls and boys flung and caught footballs. The kids teetered in balance drills. In an agility drill, they hustled, moving forward and backward and sideways as best they could between coloured pylons as a teacher shouted out: "Purple! Red! Blue! Red! Yellow!" On another side of the gym, a mesh baseball backstop was set up. Children took their turns at the T-ball stand and at fielding. One girl, at bat, eyed up the ball and drove a sharp line drive through all the defenders. She celebrated with a smile and a bat flip, though not quite as declarative as Jose Bautista's.

While the KidsMove program remains small for now, Steve Nash said his foundation and the program developers are looking for ways to move it beyond British Columbia.

Afterward, Justice Smith was bouncing. "Fortius is fun," she declared. Back at Grandview Elementary, her favourite class is gym – but it's the broader ideas here that have caught her attention.

"We talk about stuff other than sports," Justice said. Before KidsMove, she didn't know about the science of sleep. "If you don't sleep," she said, when asked what she has learned, "it's going to be harder for your brain in class."

This is exactly what Nash wants to see: Valuable information clicking with kids.

"The 'why' is where everything changes," Nash said.

While KidsMove remains small for now, Nash said his foundation and the program developers are looking for ways to move it beyond British Columbia.

"There are so many young people that can benefit from these principles," he said.

Another of the goals of KidsMove is that the teachers who help run the sessions bring back the elements to gym classes at their schools. Grandview Elementary teacher Aaron Singh is applying for a grant to buy equipment such as agility ladders and hurdles used in the program – and on many pro teams.

Singh has seen what he calls a "super-fun, enjoyable program" resonate with his students.

"It's dynamic," Singh said of KidsMove. "This pushes the kids. If something's hard, they're learning it's about doing your best."

As the kids filed out, Fortius's Sharma laughed and exhaled. "That was exhausting," she said.

She spoke about how concepts such as the athletic stance – the poised crouch that is central to physical activity – has connected with the young participants. At other KidsMove sessions, successful athletes have come to talk with the children, such as gold-medal freestyle skier Dara Howell. Another time, the kids were grossed-out but interested to hear from a Fortius nutrition expert about the various colours of pee and how different shades can indicate good health or a problem.

The backdrop of KidsMove, and a driving force behind the investment, is all the big issues around the worsening fitness levels of children.

"There's a huge public-health crisis," Sharma said. "Our purpose is to get kids moving."