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Unique clubs cultivate younger students' interests

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When Elizabeth Stillabower was growing up, LEGOs were fun to play with at home after school.

So when her 7-year-old daughter came home and said she wanted to join her school’s LEGO club, Stillabower was surprised. What used to be a toy was now a way for her daughter to get more involved at school.

In the past three years, elementary schools have started adding clubs that differ from the typical athletic and academic groups, such as Math or Science bowls, that involve more students in new activities. Schools are offering more extracurricular activities to the youngest students so they can learn about different topics, such as knitting or robots.

Families appreciate the new clubs that their children can try at a young age because they help them find activities they enjoy and keep school fun and interesting.

In the past two years, three new after-school clubs have started meeting at Creekside Elementary School. The school has more than 10 clubs now, and each remains consistently full. Each school year, principals and teachers hear from students, parents and teachers about more clubs and teams they should add, from a cursive writing club to a bionomics club, Principal Mark Heiden said.

Teachers initiate the new clubs and volunteer their time to help run them. They base their ideas for the groups on what they think the kids would like to do or interests not covered in classes.

For example, first-grade teacher Anne Wilson and several other teachers at Creekside discussed the idea for a cursive writing club for two years. Last year the school cut back on teaching kids cursive because in a digital world it didn’t seem as important. A few teachers thought that cursive should still be taught and found at least 20 kids would want to sign up to learn the writing form. They will look at the curriculum for this year and consider starting the club if the need is still there, Wilson said.

Younger kids get excited about cursive, especially when they see their parents do it, and the club would be a great way to get them involved learning a skill the school no longer emphasizes, Heiden said.

The new clubs, whether they focus on crafts, technology or penmanship, are important because they give children the chance to find their interests, he said.

“They give kids who might otherwise not find a pursuit in athletics a chance to find a real strength,” he said.

Maple Grove Elementary School student Jake Coffey wasn’t as interested in athletics as he was in building, according to his mother, Michelle Coffey. She wanted him to have a chance to learn about engineering, so she helped start a robotics club at the school for kids like her son who loved to build.

The robotics club uses LEGO pieces to create robots that function for a specific purpose set by the Indy South LEGO League Tournament. The Maple Grove team, made up of fourth- and fifth-graders, will compete against kids up to eighth grade from across the area to build a robot that can best clear debris from a simulated small-scale natural disaster.

‘Sport for the mind’

The kids in the group start learning early about engineering and robots, which they might not study in the regular classroom, and some want to keep learning engineering in middle and high school, she said.

“It’s a sport for the mind,” she said.

Students in fourth and fifth grade can join the club, which meets for two hours twice a week. Getting kids to participate in robotics from an early age puts them ahead if they want to join the middle or high school teams. They also get to work on important skills, such as public speaking at competitions and teamwork, according to Mark Snodgrass, the high school robotics coach.

“They understand that it’s important they learn to work together, to share and accept ideas, and have fun while learning,” he said. “That to me is why I care.”

Clubs give kids who might not want to participate in school athletic teams or other academic groups a chance to participate in something different, parents and teachers say. At Isom Elementary School, clubs, such as the knitting club, encourage students to give back to the community and become better public speakers while having fun.

“Most of the time (these clubs) are noncompetitive, which is nice,” Isom Principal Sondra Wooten said. “It’s an opportunity for them to shine in a way that’s fun and no pressure.”

Teachers at the school have added four clubs, including drama and knitting, in the past three years, and each remains consistently full. About 10 girls participate each year in the knitting club, which is run by a former teacher who wanted to get students involved in working for others. They make hats and scarves to donate to the Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis. The card-making club sends thank-you notes and get-well cards to people involved with the school.

Teachers come up with the ideas based on what they think students will enjoy and what they might not otherwise get to do at home or in the classroom.

Last year, the LEGO club started meeting at Creekside because teachers knew how much students loved to play with them, Wilson said.

By making a group for building, the kids can have fun with the toys while learning teamwork skills, she said. The kids work in groups to build projects based on themes, such as a town or a medieval scene.

Parents pleased

Stillabower’s daughter Madison loved playing with the small toys at home, and one day last year she came home with a flier for the club and said she wanted to join.

“I thought it was great she was excited to do something at school that was not just schoolwork,” Stillabower said. “It’s good to see the school encouraging even younger kids to do different things.”

Creekside parent Amy Crow said having more options for extracurricular activities has helped her children become better at time management because they have to juggle more from a young age.

Her son Noah joined the bionomics when he was in fourth grade because he loved to recycle. The club was started two years ago because teachers wanted kids to get the chance to learn about the environment. Kids in the group ran the school’s recycling program and tested water quality around Franklin, supervisor Denise Leonard said.

Crow’s son joined the club when it started, and he soon became the monitor at home to make sure his parents were recycling properly, Crow said.

“He was like the police, telling us what we should recycle,” she said.

The club meets once a week, and the kids collect bottles and cans from the school and their homes and paper from each classroom to be recycled. They also hope to work this year on creating a plan to replace the Styrofoam cafeteria plates, Leonard said.

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