RANGELEY — Getting a group of energetic elementary school children to focus on a message is a difficult task, especially after they just spent the last eight hours at school. But four days a week Lindsay Richards, fitness director at the Rangeley Health and Wellness Center, engages students in a healthy habits curriculum as part of her after school program, Children in Action.

The hour and a half the children spend with Richards every day is fun-filled. They play games, stay active and make healthy treats they can take home to their parents.

As 8-year-old Brooke Laliberte put it, “We play games and we learn about healthy stuff.”

But the games and healthy stuff is much more thought out than an 8-year-old would believe. It’s part of a statewide movement to expose children to a healthy-living education that organizers hope will set the tone for a healthy life.

Rangeley’s Children in Action program is one of 30 schools, doctors offices and out of school programs in Franklin County that have teamed up with the statewide children’s health organization, Let’s Go, to reinforce healthy habits such as physical activity and nutrition to communities around Maine.

“Let’s Go is taking kids and families from where (they) are to where (they) want to go,” said Molly Clark, Let’s Go program coordinator for Franklin County.

Let’s Go is based in Portland and began operating in Franklin County in 2013. The organization acts as a resource and support system for area schools and programs that teach children a healthy living curriculum. Let’s Go assesses the goals and aspects of a particular program site, and if they align with Let’s Go’s strategies for reinforcing healthy habits, the program receives certification and access to tools that aid their curriculum for free.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, 2015 data shows that 15.6 percent of Maine kindergarten and third-grade students are overweight and 16.1 percent classify as obese. According to the CDC’s 2013 data, 19.1 percent of Maine’s fifth-grade students were overweight, and 22.1 percent were considered obese.

“What precipitated was that obesity epidemic,” Clark said. “We realized that prevention from an early age was the only way to create healthy habits among children.”

Rangeley’s after school program has been a certified Let’s Go site since 2013, and on Thursday Clark presented Richards with a plaque signifying that her program had reached a gold level of certification, meaning that the program is advancing all of Let’s Go’s primary strategies for success.

Let’s Go’s strategies for success include things like limiting unhealthy choices, giving kids opportunities for physical activity every day and engaging with community partners to help support its goals. (See accompanying fact box for list of strategies.)

Richards has been running Children in Action for Rangeley area youth for the last five years and is aware that in order to keep the attention of the children, she must mix up activities, keeping the message of healthy living exciting and youthful in order to subtly effect lifestyle change.

“We start with all of these activities and games that have a message of healthy living. But then once we get done, we will sit down and talk about the habits that we just learned,” Richards said.

The number of children who attend each day ranges up to 24 depending on the day. For $50 a month, the children are bused from the school to the Wellness Center to participate in Children in Action from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., when their parents can pick them up.

Each day of the week has a different goal, and the activities of the afternoon reflect that message. Monday is “Mix it up Monday” and features different activities ranging from games that get the children exercising to learning about healthy food. Tuesdays children participate in a team sport, which is currently pickleball. “Work it Wednesdays” are dedicated to fitness and include physical tests that gauge how many pushups and situps the children can complete. Thursday’s activities focus on nutrition and include food group matching games and children making a healthy snack for themselves.

Starting Friday, the program will begin running five days a week with the inclusion of Friends and Family Friday, when the children will be encouraged to bring a friend or a family member to participate in healthy habit-building activities. Richards says that the goal of these Friday sessions will be to get the children to become a teacher of healthy living to the person they bring.

“I hear feedback, and parents are saying (their children) are asking for almonds instead of chips or smoothies instead of ice cream. So the message is flowing over at home,” Richards said.

Clark says this crossover from after school programs to a child’s home life is exactly the kind of community message Let’s Go is trying to spread. Viewing healthy living as a community issue is why the sites that can be classified as a Let’s Go certified program are so broad.

“It is the idea of a whole community promoting healthy kids,” Clark said. “The idea of Let’s Go is to work enforcing messages in a multitude of settings.”

Certified sites can include out-of-school programs like Children in Action, summer programs, schools teaching healthy lifestyle education or doctors’ offices. The Let’s Go tool kits provided to these sites are broken down into age groups from infants to high school aged youth and include ideas for healthy activities and snacks and suggestions on how to demonstrate or talk about specific healthy living goals.

For instructors and program organizers like Richards, access to these tools gives her the opportunity to connect her small rural program to a statewide initiative. For children, it’s still all about fun. For instance, Brooke Laliberte said the recipe she learned Thursday for almond-date-banana balls is an exciting opportunity to bring something healthy she made home to share.

“I think I’m going to give it to my sister because almonds are her favorite,” she said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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