After school running club builds emotional intelligence, empowers girls

Mary Woodward Elementary’s popular Girls on the Run club uses physical activity and thoughtful curriculum to empower girls, building friendships, confidence and emotional intelligence. The club is one of 65 around in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Holly Goodman/Tigard Life
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On a sunny April afternoon, the warmest of the year so far, the music was pumping, drifting over the field outside Mary Woodward Elementary, a soundtrack for the crew of girls running laps after school.

A casual observer could mistake the scene for simple exercise, but these 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders are getting more than physical fitness in their Girls on the Run club.

The club, says 4th grader Hosanna Swank, gives them “girl power!”

With every lap, the girls stopped to collect neon rubber bracelets and scribble a few words of encouragement for each other in the journals lining the edge of their course.

Despite the club name and an end-of-season 5k event the girls are training for, running is just the vehicle carrying them to something bigger. The sessions build confidence, emotional intelligence, and stronger mental health through pointed lesson plans and movement of all kinds.

“The message that it sends is really powerful for girls. This curriculum really focuses in on the struggles they go through at that age,” said 5th-grade teacher Stacey Johnston. 

Woodward’s club is one of more than 60 clubs around the state and in Southwest Washington that make up Girls on the Run Greater Oregon. Johnston introduced the program last spring after previously running clubs at a school in Idaho.

She had 15 kids join the inaugural 2023 season. This year, the popular club doubled to 30, with another six on the waiting list. Johnston passed the head coaching baton to Jennifer Luff, a marathon runner and community volunteer who commutes from Gaston.

The girls and their six adult coaches—all volunteers—meet twice a week after school for 10 weeks to learn emotional skills through interactive lessons and games. 

 “It doesn’t only help you get more active, it also teaches you life skills like being kind to people and showing your emotions,” said 5th grader Sapphire Griffin.

They follow a curriculum from the decade-old national organization of the same name, designed to create a safe space for girls to practice tackling real-life scenarios, such as how to stand up for a friend who’s being bullied and how to compassionately encourage someone having a rough time. 

More than 2.5 million girls nationwide have participated since the club’s 1996 founding in North Carolina.

Every session starts with a warm to get them moving and introduce the theme de jour, which on this day was all about being a “Star Sparkler,” igniting their inner flames and fanning others.

“Today, we’re teaching them how to encourage each other. We’ve talked about what shines the most within each one of us and how we’re all different, and that’s great. That’s wonderful,” said Kerri Hanson, a teacher’s aide in the school’s learning center, who volunteers with the club.

Each lap starts with a question to ponder along the way and ends with the girls writing messages in each other’s journals: “You Rock,” “You’re pretty,” and “Keep Going.”

“You learn lessons that can help you throughout your life,” 10-year-old Vanessa Rojanasethien said. “When you have (challenging) situations, you know how to figure out what to do with them. When I see my friend being bullied, I know the right thing to do.”

For some kids, it’s a life changer.

Fawn McCool’s 5th-grade daughter Ayla participated last year and eagerly awaited spring to do it again. Ayla, who has autism and struggles to make social connections, found a love of running and new friendships.

“This is the best thing that happened to her last year. She met her best friend.” McCool said. “She’s neurodivergent, so connecting with other kids can be hard. She’s been able to connect to other girls through movement because sometimes it’s a lot of pressure to connect when you’re not moving.”

As if on cue, to punctuate the point, Ayla ran up to ask for a weekend playdate with two more girls. 

Both are new friends.

Ayla and her teammates finish their ten-week season on June 1 with the Girls on the Run Portland Metro 5k at Blue Lake Regional Park.

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