Originally published Jan. 15, 2021 in The Palm Springs Desert Sun.
By Shad Powers
Elementary school physical education teacher Ryan Flores has a passion for helping his students stay active, and there's one specific part of the body he wants them to target with their workouts -- their smile.
Flores, a PE teacher at Amelia Earhart Elementary in Indio, has a hit on his hands with his Fitness Friday videos.
They are 2- to 3-minute-long videos that are shown to all students in kindergarten through fifth grade during the morning announcements every Friday. They are energetic, goofy, motivating, and oh the costumes. A T-rex trying to do push-ups. Santa Claus doing burpees. A unicorn doing jumping jacks.
Flores, 35, considers the videos fun but also important, this school year more than ever.
"Without these kids having any organized sports, and they're used to going to birthday parties, play dates, sleepovers. We're just lacking so much interaction and play right now," he said. "If putting on some unicorn costume and prancing around my living room brings a smile to a kids face, then I'm all for it."
And the network of smiles that Flores is creating has expanded. His videos are not only being shown to all students at Earhart but are now being shared to all 20 elementary schools in the Desert Sands Unified School District.
Proving you don't need a big Hollywood studio to produce a critically acclaimed show, Flores and his production team -- 10-year-old son Mason, 8-year-old daughter Mandy, 6-year-old son Madix, 3-year-old daughter Madyn and wife Megan -- help him put together the videos in their living room on Thursday nights.
The Desert Sun was a fly on the wall of a recent production, a Happy New Year-themed workout which started with a countdown to 2021. The video featured Flores dressed as though he was at a New Year's Eve Party complete with dress pants, nice shirt, dress shoes and tie, party hat, 2021 glasses and noisemakers.
With Mason playing cameraman, Flores jumped into action, rattling off a high-energy workout routine, which he nailed in one take.
The scripts, which are mostly just a list of exercises he needs to remember to do, are written out on two clipboards propped up on the couch. The words "jumping jacks" or "arm circles" are written in colored marker as Mandy and Madix sit nearby making sure he can see them. It ends with what has become his mantra: "Enjoy your day. Stay movin'. And stay active DSUSD!"
To the untrained eye, it might have looked like a crazy guy doing hill-climbers and rainbow jumps (a sort of arched jumping jack) in a fancy outfit on the tile floor of his Indio home while his family sat on the couch and watched.
But these videos have done a lot of good in the community and have become quite popular. In fact, it has gone "desert viral" as his videos, which can be viewed on Twitter, Facebook and now on his YouTube Channel, usually received around 1,000 views each with one topping out around 1,300 views.
"The feedback has been great, the kids love it, they look forward to it. Their screens are on and they are engaged, which is big," Flores said. "Even the teachers have gotten into it, like my son's first-grade teacher doesn't just show it, she's on there doing the workout as well. I even get recognized in the park or when I'm out sometimes. It's kinda crazy."
Ann Morales, the principal at Earhart, said she saw firsthand the kind of impact Flores is making when she was visiting a student's home earlier in the school year.
She and another staffer were at a trailer park trying to help a family with three students set up their tablets and wifi for distance learning. While they were working with two of the kids at a table, the third, a young girl, found a space in the home and was exercising. She had set two rolls of toilet paper on the ground as an obstacle and was jumping over them back and forth.
"I couldn't believe it, in this small space this little girl was doing PE, and she was smiling and giggling, and then I saw she was in one of his classes," Morales said. "He's really clever and creative when it comes to that, and he incorporates things that anyone would have around the house like socks or toilet paper rolls. He's so positive, so upbeat, so athletic and not afraid to do crazy things to get the students involved."
The origin story
A 2003 graduate of La Quinta High School, Flores played football at College of the Desert for a year before transferring to McPherson College in Kansas to finish his football career. He returned to the desert and has been a teacher and coach in DSUSD since 2007. He is currently a wrestling coach at Indio High School and part of the football coaching staff at Palm Desert High School.
Flores started his current job as the PE teacher at Earhart Elementary in March of 2020, about a week before in-person classes were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like it was for most teachers, last spring was tricky for Flores in that no one really knew the best ways to do distance learning. What is Zoom? How do you know if the students are responding?
"In the spring, it was rough, I mean nobody knew what to do," Flores said. "My kids and I just decided to make some videos of us playing games, but it wasn't great, I think we had more outtakes and blooper footage than anything, but that was good practice and we got through it."
Over the summer, knowing that kids had been cooped up, Flores and Morales wanted to start a Fitness Friday program before classes where Flores would lead a school-wide exercise program. Good plan, but the coronavirus did not cooperate.
When it became clear that in-person classes weren't going to resume in the fall, the idea was launched for Flores to shoot a fitness video that could be shown to all classes as part of the morning announcements.
And thus, a star was born. At first, Flores' videos were straight workout routines.
"I did a couple and they were OK, but it wasn't until October when I was like 'You know, we've got to step it up a little bit,'" Flores said. "Halloween was around the corner and that's when the costumes kicked off. I remember my first one was in a chicken costume that I borrowed from a buddy of mine. After that, my wife was like 'Well, you know you're going to have to do costumes every week now. You can't just go back to normal after the chicken.' "
Now Flores had a weekly quest. The Dollar Store and Walmart became staples as he tried to find new costumes or come up with creative ideas.
Flores also had the advantage with four kids at home telling him exactly what kids would like and not like. His four co-producers are the creative team, he said.
"My family. Oh man, they are all about it. They have so much fun with it. Half the time, the skit is their idea," Flores said. "I throw out an idea and they're like 'No daddy. You've gotta do this instead." By the time we get ready to shoot it, they're ready to go.
"My oldest son whose always behind the camera has really gotten into it, panning in and out. We write out the scripts together and then it's everyone's job to make sure my youngest daughter does scream or giggle or cry too loud during it. Everyone's involved."
The greatest hits
While the videos that involve full costumes like chicken, unicorn, T-Rex and Santa Claus are all instant classics (to answer your question, yes a T-Rex can do a push-up despite its short arms), it's the videos where Flores and family needed to get creative that have yielded some of the best outcomes.
Neon man: This idea daughter Mandy suggested from a TikTok she had seen. In this one, Flores taped glow-sticks up and down his arms and legs. And when he started the video, he gave a clap and the lights went out. Side note: They don't actually have "The Clapper," wife Megan hit the light switch at just the right time. Now in pitch black except for the glow sticks, Flores did his full exercise while all the viewers saw was a glow-in-the-dark stick figure.
"Yeah, people liked that one a lot. I wish I could take credit for it, but it was all Mandy. We had to do a second take on that one, because one of the glow sticks went sideways during the first take and it looked like I had a broken ankle so I didn't want that to scare any of the kids," Flores said with a laugh.
Petey the present: This one was reminiscent of a Transformer as the video opened on a pile of nicely wrapped Christmas presents in front of the tree. But then all of a sudden the presents sprung to life to reveal it was Flores sitting just right to create the optical illusion. Now he had to do the video with a big present around his upper body and small ones around his legs.
"I didn't think that one out too well, because once I jumped up, I realized I had almost no mobility. My wife was like 'What exercises are you going to do like that?' But I made it through."
Captain Flannel: One of DSUSD's spirit days in December was "Dare to wear flannel." Flores dropped a bonus video where he took flannel to the extreme. He did his workout while wearing eight different flannel shirts, taking one off every seven seconds or so. It was not unlike that episode of "Friends" where Joey wore all of Chandler's clothes. This video was funny also because it forced him to breathe harder than any of his other videos in which he has boundless energy and never seems to tire.
It is officially a major part of Flores' week these days to come through with a winning Fitness Friday video.
Flores already has a few ideas lined up to coincide with upcoming holidays. A friend told him he has a leprechaun get-up he can use for St. Patrick's Day. But he's open to ideas. He'll take any inspiration he can get.
"I hear all the time now, 'What are you going to do this Friday?' from kids and parents," Flores said. "Parents and teachers have really embraced it, which I am thankful for. Everybody interacting and having fun and just kind of letting loose."
Morales said what Flores is doing is particularly crucial this school year as teachers at every grade level have tried to keep morale up while distance learning. His effort has not just been motivating to the kids, but to the teachers, too.
"He's just owned it and every week getting more and more creative," she said, admitting that she tried one of his Fitness Friday workouts herself and loved it. "He's motivated other PE teachers and really any teachers to try to find creative ways to get the students to engage. Every little bit helps."
And that is Flores' driving force -- helping. It pains him to know that a kid is not able to be a kid these days.
"Where we're at right now, smiles for a lot of kids are few and far between," Flores said. "Getting kids to smile more is really what I was going for. And what I will continue to go for."