No Matter The Distance, These Girls Aim To Run Far

Girls on the Run teaches important life lessons, especially reaching your goals

The Girls on the Run council at Martin Luther King Elementary School with their coaches Kaytlin Barreira (far left) and Nicole Stefani (far right).

The Girls on the Run council at Martin Luther King Elementary School with their coaches Kaytlin Barreira (far left) and Nicole Stefani (far right).

An after-school activity whose mission is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident while using fitness to teach life lessons sounds like a win for young girls emotionally and physically. And while those lessons are taught through running, the timing and distance don’t matter for Girls on the Run. What is really important is setting goals, reaching them and having fun along the way.

At Martin Luther King Elementary School, the idea seems to work. Girls are happy, enthusiastic and are making new friends. They eagerly contribute and are meeting their goals, running more and more each week.

Girls on the Run, an international program with over 220 independent councils, was established in Rhode Island in 2011, and began offering programs in the spring of 2012 with just two sites and 30 girls. This fall, 13 sites are serving 180 girls, including teams at MLK and Pleasant View Elementary Schools in Providence. More than 600 girls in Rhode Island have participated in Girls on the Run since its inception and the program has been offered in several Providence Schools.

The curriculum combines training for a celebratory end-of-season 5K (3.1 miles) running event with lessons that inspire girls to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem-solving skills and make healthy decisions. The small teams of 8-15 girls meet twice each week as the girls explore important issues, set goals and increase their running distances. In addition, participants at each site create a community impact project, which they complete as a team.

The 20-lesson curriculum is delivered by trained volunteer coaches and includes three parts: understanding ourselves, valuing teamwork and understanding how we connect with and shape the world at large. Lessons are taught using dynamic conversation and running games. Developmentally specific curricula are delivered to elementary (3-5th grade) and middle school (6-8th grade) girls. The program explores a wide range of topics, including self-awareness, positive thinking, healthy relationships, managing emotions, redefining beauty, personal values, community roles, peer pressure and media messages, problem-solving and the importance of nutrition while training as new runners.

Girls on the Run RI Executive Director Michelle Duso puts a sticker on the hand of a participant as she completes another lap. The girls receive a sticker for every lap they run.

Girls on the Run RI Executive Director Michelle Duso puts a sticker on the hand of a participant as she completes another lap. The girls receive a sticker for every lap they run.

The elementary and middle school curricula differ in how they approach these topics, according to Michelle Duso, Executive Director. “There is greater depth and maturity in discussions to address the different struggles and pressures experienced by middle school girls,” she said. The middle school curriculum also addresses eating disorders, internet safety, tobacco and alcohol use and cyber bullying more directly.

The volunteer coaches have diverse backgrounds and serve as strong role models for the girls. At MLK, coach Nicole Stefani works at a restaurant while coach Kaytlin Barreira is a high school math teacher and coach Shaunna Turner is a biomedical engineer.

At an early November session, a group of girls in grades 3-5 at MLK sat in a circle in the school hallway to put on their running sneakers and enjoy a healthy snack before going outside. This session was one of two remaining practices before the season’s 5K event at Providence College that weekend.

The coaches introduced the day’s lesson; media messages and how they influence self-esteem. Barreira showed pictures of models and asked the girls to think about how those photos made them feel on their way out to the parking lot.

The group then went outside and warmed up with jumping jacks as coaches continued the lesson by having the girls choose a popular television character and answer questions about that character’s values, and how they are influenced by what that character does.

The lesson’s goal was to help the girls think about safe, kind and healthy choices by discussing and thinking critically about those made by well-known characters.

“I love the program so I can spend time with my friends,” said one of the participants. “We always get to do fun stuff. We learn life lessons like how to ignore gossip and turn it in a positive way.”

Then it was time to run. As the girls left the parking lot across from the school to run around the block, they were reminded to choose a lap goal and to try to run longer than they did last time. While their stamina and endurance varied, each girl in the group tried to complete as many laps as possible. As they run laps, the media message lesson continues, with girls taking turns stopping to consider other advertisements.

“The girls set individual goals for the number of laps they feel they can complete that day,” said Duso.

“The process helps them to prepare both mentally and physically to finish the 5K, and gives them practice breaking seemingly impossible tasks into smaller, more manageable goals. With each new accomplishment, and with every step they take, girls gain strength. They gain confidence in their abilities, and by extension, themselves.”

“We see a huge change in their stamina and endurance as the season progresses.” Duso said. “Some are able to jog the entire workout, some to walk longer before needing a drink. They are making an important mind-body connection, training themselves to say, ‘It’s hard and I know I can do this.’ This skill translates to school, family and the community. When they feel challenged and are tempted to give up, they won’t. They know how to pace themselves. They know their effort and contribution matter.”

Parents report that their daughters are more excited about being in school and taking school more seriously, said Barreira. They are less sedentary, asking to go for walks and drinking more water. Parents say they are hearing more positive self-talk.

Evidence-based evaluations of Girls on the Run show a statistically significant improvement in body image, eating attitudes and self-esteem. Research also indicates an improved sense of identity and commitment to physical activity for program participants.

At the conclusion of running, the lesson wraps up. As Coach Nicole held up the cover of a fitness magazine depicting a thin and toned model, she asked what messages were being given, then asked how that might impact girls and women who see the cover.

One girl replied, “Most people feel bad because they don’t look this way. They’re trying to tell you that if you eat healthy, you will look like her.” After some discussion, Coach Nicole pointed out, “Many models in the photos we see don’t really look like that either. These photos are changed.” The girls eagerly jumped in, sharing what they knew about Photoshop. “As you go about your day, think about media messages and what they are trying to tell you,” concludes Barreira.

Then it is time for “energy awards”, positive feedback from one girl to another. They recognize those who encouraged them, ran with them or kept going despite difficulty.

Gathering in a circle, the sessions always end with a cheer, “Girls on the Run is so much fun!”

The program will return to Providence Schools for a spring session, with registration beginning in February. School sites are still being determined. For more information about the program or volunteer opportunities, visit their website at