Judging by the name, Girls on the Run may simply sound like a running group, but the organization and its mission go far beyond running.

The 12-week after-school curriculum is designed to help girls in third to fifth grades recognize their inner strength to define their lives on their own terms. The program is structured around running, but during those 12 weeks, the girls talk and learn about self confidence, body image and healthy living.

Starting Line

Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C., by Molly Barker. On her blog, Barker says she started the group “to provide an experience for girls to untangle from the stereotypes which far too frequently capture their spirits around middle school.”

Today, there are more than 200 Girls on the Run councils in North America, which in 2015 served more than 185,000 girls.

Working through the Pittsburgh Council at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Magee-Womens Hospital, first-grade teacher Hope Hull launched a Girls on the Run program at South Butler County School District.

With district administration approval, Hull debuted Girls on the Run at South Butler County SD in March with the hopes of attracting 15 girls. But the reality far exceeded her expectations.

“At 41 girls, I had to cut it off,” she says. “The administration and the school board recognized that it was good for the district.”

Formed into three groups, the 41 girls met twice a week from March to May. During that time, Hull followed the Girls on the Run curriculum, helping the girls develop the skills to go forward through adolescence and life with confidence and a healthy lifestyle.

How It Runs

Meredith Colaizzi, regional program director for Girl on the Run’s Pittsburgh Council, says the curriculum is divided into three sections: Self-Care and Self-Awareness, Connectedness, and Empowerment.

“The curriculum is designed to help improve confidence, build character, handle self-care, and make meaningful contributions to the community,” Colaizzi says. “Each class is followed by physical activity that leads to improved health emotionally, mentally and socially.”

A typical Girls on the Run class begins with the girls seated in a circle to discuss and question that class’s topic. The class is led by a certified coach, like Hull—who has taken Girls on the Run curriculum training at Magee-Womens Hospital—along with eight teachers and parents, who have also gone through training at UPMC.

Classes focus on and talk about issues that young girls deal with every day. Discussions address how to deal with emotions, developing positive self-talk, having proper nutrition, living a healthy lifestyle and how to say “no” when dealing with uncomfortable situations.

One class deals with society’s emphasis and judgment on outer appearance and beauty. The class teaches the girls that their sense of self is not defined by what is on the outside, while reinforcing each girl’s self-worth and self-esteem.

“Girls on the Run provides the tools to combat the feeling that only appearance matters,” Colaizzi says.

Class discussions are followed by the Getting on Board activity. Girls partner with each other to work on a small activity that encourages positive motivational reinforcement.

Moving Inspiration

After class discussions, it’s on to running. The girls warm up and stretch for 25-yard relays, during which they dash to a coach who shares a quote or statement from that day’s class to help reinforce the lesson of the day.

Laps are counted so that the girls can measure their progress over the three months in preparation for a 5K run at the end of the program.

Afterward, the girls discuss in their groups what they learned, asking questions an open forum.

“This is where confidence building, friendship and leadership skills come in,” Hull says.

The girls are also required, as part of the curriculum, to complete a community service project of their choosing. This year’s participants democratically chose to write letters to those serving in the military.

At the end of 12 weeks, the girls do an end-of-program 5K run or walk—no small feat for students this age.

“For a third- or fifth-grader that’s a great distance,” Hull says. “It offers them a complete sense of accomplishment while building confidence and a healthy lifestyle.”