On a late October morning at Paradise Ridge Elementary School, the whole campus leans into Halloween. That includes Katie Rusten’s (Liberal Studies ’04; Credential ’08) physical education classes. Fifth graders Calie Bettencourt and Zooey Shaver enjoy tossing Hula-Hoops onto witches’ hats. Their classmate, Blaise Parr, delights in balancing little plastic eyeballs on foam rackets while weaving through cones. 

Equipped with a headset and PA system, Rusten shifts enthusiastic students from station to station on the blacktop.  

The smiles and enthusiasm that Bettencourt, Shaver, and Parr show for PE and recess belie the immense challenges these students have overcome—in and out of the classroom. Their scholastic careers were upended by the Camp Fire in 2018 and they all spent time at different schools throughout the county in its aftermath. When Paradise Ridge opened in 2021, they enrolled and unanimously say PE class is better and more fun here.   

“The school I went to in Oroville had regular PE. Here it is longer and more fun,” said Parr. 

That’s exactly what kinesiology professor Cathrine Himberg (MA, Physical Education, ’92) imagined for them when she launched PARADISE U (Physical Activity Reduces Anxiety and Depression, Improves the Stress-response and Energizes U) in 2019. Through decades of research, Himberg has long connected movement to overall wellness and was confident an immersive physical education program could do wonders for youth affected by the Camp Fire or just dealing with the stressors of everyday life.

“Physical education classes, as well as active movement, are so important to everyone,” she said. “Movement creates happy molecules, which make you feel better, more courageous, and more resilient. It also literally expands the number of brain cells in your head, so students become better learners when they have an active lifestyle.” 

The physical education program is funded by grants from the North Valley Community Foundation, Butte Strong, and Aaron Rodgers Foundation. Its premise is based on research from Stanford University health psychologist and lecturer Kelly McGonigal, who explores physical exercise as a powerful antidote to the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, and loneliness in her latest book, The Joy of Movement.

PARADISE U currently has two components: it provides free physical activity classes for Camp Fire survivors of all ages in Paradise and it teaches quality physical education at Paradise Ridge Elementary in Paradise and Pine Ridge and Cedarwood Elementary Schools in Magalia. Based on the experience of students like Calie, Zooey, Blaise, and the nearly 300 more who take PE with Rusten, Himberg is planning to expand the program to schools across Butte County so more students can participate in physical activity as a tool to cope with stress and anxiety and be energized to continue their healing journey.

Rusten, who has taught K–6 physical education at multiple schools for displaced Camp Fire students since 2019, says PARADISE U is essential not because it simply makes time for physical education, but because PE is taught in a modern, inclusive way. 

“My lessons cover the SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) standards in a fun way, putting a smile on their little faces, and having their social and emotional needs met so their brains are ready to learn when they return to the classroom,” said Rusten. “We offer physical education where all students respect each other, practice good sportsmanship, and leave with increased confidence and in a better mood than before they got to my class.” 

The students say the concept works. Shaver feels more ready for her math class that follows right after PE because she exercised. And Bettencourt said she enjoys all the sports units and that PE “makes me feel a little hyper and then a little calmer.” 

By mixing holiday-themed games, non-competitive activities like riding scooters through cones, and teaching students special dances with traditional exercises, it’s Rusten’s goal to make PE a positive experience for each student, regardless of athletic ability. 

In a split screen, a young adult woman teacher takes a selfie on the left, and on the right a group of children play under a rainbow-colored parachute
Katie Rusen (left) brings creativity, enthusiasm, and lots of fun to her PARADISE U PE classes at Paradise Ridge Elementary School.

As news of the success of PARADISE U spread among educators in Butte County, it led Himberg to work to expand the program with help from Chico State kinesiology students. She’s also heard from teachers who, coming out of COVID-19 school closures, report many students are struggling with getting active. 

“Teachers are reporting there has been too much sitting around during recess. Our kids need a little push in the right direction to get active again and rediscover the joys of playing with their peers,” said Himberg. “The challenge is that our schools are stretched thin and many schools can’t dedicate someone to be in charge of physical activity.” 

Enter Chico State kinesiology students and the department’s PETE (Physical Education Teacher Education) Club. This academic year, about 10 Chico State students regularly visit elementary schools in Chico and Oroville to get children outside and engaged in activities that focus on movement. The volunteers come with parachutes and frisbees and organize games like “dance tag” (a classic freeze tag game except instead of being frozen you dance in place and do a fist pump). 

“There are a lot of high fives and lots of smiles, and it is rewarding to see students’ moods perk up,” said Jerry Langarica, a physical education teacher education major scheduled to graduate in spring 2023. Langarica also coordinates the PETE Club volunteer program. “I tell my classmates we are not only giving back to the community but we are also at the forefront of changing how PE will be taught in the future.” 

With six elementary schools in Chico wanting Chico State students on campus as soon as possible, Himberg is dreaming even bigger. With continued grants and private support, she imagines expanding the principles of PARADISE U into other CSU kinesiology departments and eventually throughout the state.  

It’s an ambitious goal that will require funding and dedicated leadership. And, Himberg has tapped Christine Wilhoyte (Exercise Physiology, ’20) as the program’s first program manager.

Last year, Wilhoyte biked across the country to raise money for K–12 physical education. She kept in regular contact with Himberg and the two discussed the need to modernize how fitness is measured—beyond traditional measures like weight and body mass index. Wilhoyte got to work drafting content for a soon-to-be-finished resources website and posters with empowerment, positive body image, and self-love as part of the messaging around physical fitness. 

“The message is that there is joy in movement. And that we should be active because we love our bodies and not because we hate them,” said Wilhoyte, who will pursue her master’s at Chico State in kinesiology while running the PARADISE U volunteer program. 

She also donated a significant chunk of the $5,500 she raised during her bike ride to PARADISE U.

“Because she is so connected and so passionate, I figure a dollar in Dr. Himberg’s hands is worth $1,000 in mine,” she said. 

As program manager Wilhoyte will focus on further connecting PARADISE U with the community, purchasing new equipment, organizing Chico State PETE Club volunteers to meet the program’s expanded demand, and writing grant proposals to keep it properly funded.

Back at Paradise Ridge, that news is music to Rusten and her students’ ears. Especially Ashlyn Wilson and Blake Volenski, two third graders who recall the special dance Rusten taught students for the community’s annual Golden Nugget Parade last spring. Both eagerly await this year’s rendition. 

“Though the program is only funded through the end of the year, I’m hopeful and confident that we have shown how beneficial it is to our children and that Chico State, Dr. Himberg, and the local community will come together and keep it going for many years to come,” Rusten said.