METHUEN — After hockey practice on a recent Tuesday, 6-year-old twins Luke and Gavin Henry shed their sticks, gloves, and helmets and headed for a table covered with books. Each took a few minutes to poke through the pile and make a selection. Both chose a title from the “Amulet” series of graphic novels by writer-artist Kazu Kibuishi.
To meet their hockey program’s stated goals, each boy needs to read at least three books from a list of age-appropriate titles. Luke and Gavin were off and rolling.
The books on display were from the Methuen town library, picked from dozens of titles geared toward boys and girls ages 4 to 15. The players, roughly 40 in all, wore jerseys supplied by the Methuen Fun Hockey League — emphasis on Fun — which meets twice a week at the Methuen High School rink for an hour of drills and scrimmages.
The innovative program combining the two elements — rigorous but not-too-serious hockey instruction and encouraging schoolchildren to read more — is known as Skate & Read. The current season, its 14th, offers 16 hours of hockey practice, ending March 27 with a party in the Methuen High cafeteria.
Skate & Read represents the largest portion of a program overseen by author and college teacher Jay Atkinson. The program has been embraced by school, library, and town recreation officials in Methuen as a way to promote reading and involvement in school, particularly by students considered reluctant readers or edging toward being more seriously at risk.
Atkinson, who would like to expand the concept, runs a smaller floor hockey program in Lawrence and has fielded questions from some other towns interested in starting similar programs.
“We’re serious about teaching skating and hockey skills as lifelong skills,” Atkinson says. “But we’re just as excited to see them get into reading for fun.”
For the Henry brothers, who also participated last year, Skate & Read has been a terrific pathway to learning, on and off the ice, according to their mother, Stacey Henry.
“I first heard about it through the town library, and they’ve really loved it,” she said, standing rinkside as kids skated by, some of the younger ones looking wobbly but determined.
Like many parents who’ve embraced the program, Henry has pushed her sons to read even more books than required. And she praises Atkinson, the program’s cofounder and head coach, for keeping the program’s priorities in proper balance.
“Jay will go out of his way to ask kids about the books they’re reading and whether they’re keeping up,” Henry noted.
Atkinson obviously knows his youth hockey, she added. Yet it’s the learning piece that gives kids something to talk about with family, friends, and teachers, she said, beyond the hockey skills they sharpen each week.
Lisa Smith has three daughters — Nicole, 6, Rachel, 7, and Amanda, 12 — participating in Skate & Read this season. It’s not just Atkinson who makes the hockey instruction unusually good, according to Smith. His team of assistants, including several high-school-age graduates of the program, also earn high marks for their knowledge and dedication.
“There aren’t too many programs where kids really learn to play hockey, with all the skills, drills, and scrimmages, and have so many coaches on hand,” she said. “It’s amazing to see [kids’] progression from beginning to end.”
At the end of practice, Smith was joined by her daughter Amanda, who won an award last winter for reading the most books in her age group. Her favorite: “The Sign of the Beaver,” a novel by Elizabeth George Speare that incorporates a learning-to-read theme.
“She likes to read, but she definitely read more because of this program,” said Amanda’s mom as the other skaters shuffled off the ice.
Smith’s words are music to the ears of local librarians, teachers, and school administrators who’ve embraced the Skate & Read program for a variety of reasons.
“There’s a health and wellness piece to this, getting kids to read and exercise too, that makes it a win-win for us,” says Methuen Public Schools Superintendent Judith Scannell, whose office supports the program with low-cost ice time at the school rink.
Reading for pleasure has declined as screen time — cellphones, computers, video games — has increased, notes Scannell. Skate & Read builds habits that pull youngsters in the opposite direction. What’s not to like?
“Kids are seeing how beneficial this is to their classroom work,” she says. “Teachers give them positive feedback. Parents love it, too. When Jay started the program, people asked, ‘What is this?’ Now they can’t wait to sign up.”
Encouraging reading is particularly important for younger students. Specialists note that children who fall behind in those skills by the fourth grade tend to have more difficulties in school overall as that‘s about the time when teachers expect them to acquire more information independently from books. Kids who aren’t working at grade level by then often become increasingly frustrated, and troubles can snowball.
But even after the early years, reading remains a critical skill, and parents and educators often find they must push to keep kids involved.
Krista McLeod is director of Methuen’s Nevins Memorial Library. She says middle-school boys are among those showing the sharpest decline in leisure reading. Screen time has a lot to do with that, McLeod agrees. Yet if they can get connected to a library, however it happens, they’re more likely to read for fun.
“Jay’s whole idea of the scholar-athlete really caught on with us,” she says, adding that her staff is also concerned about the issue of childhood obesity. This marks their third year supporting Skate & Read. Two staffers also help construct its reading list.
The program “definitely brings in some kids who might not otherwise come to the library,” McLeod says. “That, we’re really happy about.”
For Atkinson himself, the program is clearly a labor of love.
Playing sports and reading were always twinned in Atkinson’s life. “Skate & Read came about when I realized we could just as easily add the fun we all got from reading sports narratives, biographies, classic adventure books, and serialized stories when we came in from playing hockey and other sports outside,’’ Atkinson said. “The two things seemed to go together quite well, then and now.”
Boston University writing teacher, author of seven books, and frequent Globe contributor, Atkinson grew up in Methuen, where he played high school hockey. During the 1999-2000 hockey season, he returned to the school to serve as a volunteer coach, an experience underpinning his book “Ice Time: Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes.”
Meanwhile, Atkinson’s son Liam, then 4, was reaching the age when youth sports beckon. Along with Mark Donohue, a New Hampshire police detective and longtime friend, Atkinson saw where youth hockey was headed and did not like it.
“There were all these private, elite programs, as opposed to what we’d grown up with,” he recalls. “We’d seen the toll that tryouts had taken on young friendships, the attitude that kids play one sport year-round so they could get into a top-level program. We thought that was wrong.”
The two outlined a “retro” program, as Atkinson calls it, for kids ages 4-14. It would emphasize skating skills over competition and game strategy. No referees, no keeping score. Play confined to smaller, tighter spaces, a cross-ice model more popular in Europe than the United States.
Atkinson and Donohue tried to sell their program to local youth sports officials but were turned down. Undaunted, they launched the Fun Hockey League in 2002. For two years, they focused on teaching hockey skills. Soon, though, Atkinson sensed a bigger opportunity. “Because I teach [writing] and work with a lot of teens,” he says, “I thought the student had slowly been erased out of the student-athlete. A lot of these kids hadn’t read for fun, as we did as kids.”
So they held a season-ending homework party, where hockey players were encouraged to submit homework papers and projects, the idea being to recognize their academic achievements along with their athletic ones. Six years later, Atkinson reached out to Scannell to formulate, and formalize, a reading program.
The book list changes yearly. It contains both classics (for example, “Kidnapped,” by Robert Louis Stevenson) and more contemporary fare (the Judy Moody and Harry Potter series). Sports-related titles (“The Magic Hockey Stick,” “The Kid Who Only Hit Homers”) are popular, too. Kids can choose from authors as varied as Roald Dahl, Cynthia Rylant, Louis Sachar, Lynne Reid Banks, and Mike Lupica.
Atkinson’s program now has three components: “Play & Read” indoor floor hockey programs in Lawrence (fall) and Methuen (spring); a one-week hockey program in Methuen held over Christmas vacation; and the longer “Skate & Read” program, typically stretching from February school vacation to the April break. This year’s program is being trimmed by two weeks because of planned renovations to the high school facility.
Families are charged a modest fee — $99 for 16 hours’ worth of instruction — with tuition allowances made for those in financial need. Support from local businesses and foundations have helped underwrite the cost of procuring ice time, equipment, and staffing needs. Among the biggest supporters are the Boston Bruins Foundation and Mike Cheever Grow Hockey program, which has kicked in $4,000 each of the past two years.
In Lawrence, where the citywide floor hockey program has been in place for two seasons at St. Patrick Parish, the Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor at the church, calls it a “smash success.”
As Lawrence’s immigrant population has grown in recent years, youth hockey has been on the wane in his city, O’Brien observes, owning to the fact that many of the newcomers hail from countries where the sport is not popular. Now it’s coming back, via street hockey, thanks to Atkinson’s vision. And with a huge bonus attached.
“Lawrence schools have ranked among the poorest in the state,” O’Brien says. “So if you can associate reading with any activity that’s fun, that’s big.”