Cold winds blew across the Brooks Elementary School playground Halloween morning, but those chills couldn’t stop the fun of bowling soccer balls and poofy balls toward a 10-pin pumpkin or running relays around hay bales.
Within the warmth of the building, an orange-and-white parachute fluttered up and down, balls bouncing atop its bright stripes. On the other side of the wall, children quickly paced the length of the gym, trying not to spill spoons full of candy corns.
Elsewhere, they tossed beanbags through the mouth of a jack-o-lantern painted on a wooden board, ringed pumpkins with hula-hoops and played tic-tac-toe on the floor with gourds in place of X’s and O’s.
Fall Field Day 2017 offered more than fun, games, laughter and cheers, however.
It also provided a hands-on learning experience for two dozen NIU Physical Education majors in their first or second semester and still awaiting official admittance.
Paired with kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders in the morning, and third- through fifth-graders in the afternoon, NIU’s students demonstrated, facilitated, cheered and, in some cases, even participated in the games and activities.
At day’s end, after also eating lunch with the children and attending their recess periods, they walked away with the kind of first-hand understanding of their future careers that no textbook can describe.
“It’s just so important that they get into a school and immerse themselves,” says Laurie Zittel, a professor of Adapted Physical Activity in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE).
“We want them to see the diversity at the school,” Zittel adds. “We want them to be able to witness positive things. We want them to witness challenging things relative to behavior. We want them, as young professionals, learning how to work with a group of students and how to manage a group of students.”
Brooke Condon, principal of Brooks Elementary, tallied benefits on both sides.
“It’s great to get the NIU students out in the school and really experience what the school day looks like,” Condon says, “and it’s really cool just to watch how our kids respond. We have a lot of students who’ve never had experiences like these before, and they’ve made connections with the NIU students.”
Home to 320 students, Brooks hosts monthly, all-school PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) celebrations that build community and acknowledge successes. The school also collaborates frequently with KNPE, which underscores the teaching of social skills through physical education.
Victoria Newport, president of the District 428 Board of Education, visited Brooks that morning to observe the interaction.
“For NIU students to come in and work with our students is valuable for both sides of the partnership. It’s very positive,” Newport says. “This is giving the NIU students an opportunity for hands-on, practical experience as teachers, and it’s giving our kids the opportunity to identify with another adult in the building.”
Newport was eager to share what she saw Halloween morning with her colleagues on the school board, something that reinforces the strong collaboration between District 428 and the NIU College of Education.
“It’s important for me, as school board president, to get out and see what’s happening in our buildings,” she says, “and to support our staff in whatever they want to accomplish.”
Jamie Craven, superintendent of District 428, calls the day a “win-win.”
“I saw a lot of kids laughing. I saw a lot of kids clearly enjoying the experience – and when I say kids, the NIU kids are kids to me because I have kids that age, so it’s wasn’t just the Brooks kids, it was the NIU kids, too,” Craven says.
“From the NIU student side, I think it’s a great opportunity for them to see what goes on at schools, well beyond the classroom, that these kinds of celebrations are just different learning opportunities,” he adds. “Our kids got to interact with different young adults who were bringing a different level of enthusiasm and a different level of engagement with the activities.”
Zittel is pleased that her students earned the respect of the District 428 leadership: She had prepared them in “understanding the importance of professionalism.”
“I told them, ‘You’re now a representative of NIU. You’re in a public school with teachers, principals, secretaries, custodians, administrative people from the school district, parents, teaching assistants,” she says.
The professor was pleased with their performance as well.
“Watching my students just collapse on the floor in exhaustion was hilarious,” she says. “It was a full day of activity, but they were all very happy that we did it. They got a lot out of it.”