Walker Wiggle will make his debut at this weekend’s Ciclovia event in downtown Pensacola.
Walker the dog is the main character of the new children’s book promoting physical activity among pre-school children. The title is Walker Finds His Wiggle.
“My name is Walker Wiggle and I live next to this park,” the story begins. “I’ve learned a way to meet new friends, just wag my tail and bark.”
Dr. Debra Vinci reads an excerpt from the book. Vinci is leader of the University of West Florida research team that created the book, with author Sheila Booth-Alberstadt and illustrator Norris Hall, as part of their “Let’s Wiggle” program.
“I can sit or shake your hand or fetch a tennis ball, but I wish I could wiggle; it’s my last name after all. Perhaps my friends can show me and teach me how to wiggle. We’ve had a lot of fun outside, I’m sure we’ll laugh and giggle.”
Picking up the story is Dr. Christopher Wirth, assistant professor in the UWF Department of Exercise Science and Community Health, chaired by Vinci, and co-coordinator of Let's Wiggle.
As Walker Wiggle explores the neighborhood, he meets one orange, clever tabby cat.
“Please show me how to wiggle,” Walker asks. “I really want to learn. I want to watch you first, and then I’ll take my turn.”
The cat explains how he wiggles by swinging his tail from left to right, “Now swing your tail left to right; that’s how I wiggle.”
From there Walker Wiggle encounters two redheaded woodpeckers; three yellow, fluttering butterflies; four brown, bouncing bunnies, and so on.
Dr. Vinci says it’s a fun and educational journey that lays the groundwork for what’s referred to as physical literacy.
“So, as we have academic literacy, and we’re working with these children to learn their numbers, and letters and colors, we’re also working with the children to become more competent and enjoy movement,” said Vinci.
“So, when we’re looking at children in terms of physical literacy, we’re really looking at the basic movements that a child starts to learn, walking, jumping, skipping, hopping.”
Vinci says these movements can translate to a lifetime of activities such as running and swimming or playing sports like tennis or basketball.
On Tuesday, dozens of youngsters are running, jumping and playing at UWF’s Movement Academy and getting the first opportunity to meet a real life version of Walker the dog in person. The mascot-like character, white with brown spots, works his way through the gym, encouraging the kids to come wiggle with him.
“And, it was very clear that Walker found a girlfriend very early in his debut in the community,” said Vinci in reference to a young girl that latched on to Walker during his brief appearance.
Wirth, who was wearing the dog suit, was pleased with the response even though there were a couple of kids who were afraid of the costume. He says it was a good trial run for this Saturday when Walker the dog will make his community-wide debut at Pensacola’s Ciclovia Open Streets event.
“Children are actually going to participate and wiggle with Walker,” said Wirth. “There’s going to be a live story board that they’ll be able to go around to each character in the story, as well as each number and do the movement along with Walker and a whole host of other volunteers that’ll be there to move and shake with them.”
The character Walker and the book Walker Finds His Wiggle are the latest offerings from the Let’s Wiggle with 5-2-1-0 (zero)! campaign, which encourages five servings of fruits and vegetables, less than two hours of screen time daily, at least one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks each day.
Let’s Wiggle with 5-2-1-0! is a coordinated effort of Vinci’s team at UWF and the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County to reduce obesity, prevent chronic diseases, and generally promote healthy living, with messaging aimed at pre-school children, 3-5 years old.
“The focus really is starting with the young children, but it also involves the children and their families,” said Vinci. “And, if we can work at health behavior, change at that level, promoting healthy eating and physical activity, then we’re really setting the ground work that can potentially look at decreasing chronic diseases in the next generation.”
With grant funding from DOH-Escambia, Vinci's "Let's Wiggle" team, including Ali Venezia, Jordan Freeze and Pat Mitchell, also has created curriculum that incorporates physical activity into academic learning time at childcare centers. Over the past two years, they’ve worked with more than 190 teachers at nearly 30 childcare and home-based centers in Escambia County, and soon will conduct training workshops for pre-school teachers in Santa Rosa.
Wirth, who was instrumental in developing the training and the “Let’s Wiggle” program in general, says seeing their work come to fruition has been the most rewarding experience of his professional career.
“The whole reason I set out to be a teacher was to impact the physical activity levels of children,” said Wirth of their life changing initiative that teaches young children how to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. “(It) makes every bit of blood, sweat, and tears worth it.”
The book, Walker Finds His Wiggle, is a big part of the UWF Wiggle Team outreach. It was made in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health in Escambia and its director Dr. John Lanza, and with support of the UWF Usha Kundu, MD College of Health.
Children in the area will be able to get copies of the book and wiggle with Walker at this year’s Ciclovia on Saturday, Mar. 24, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in downtown Pensacola.