In a recent study released last week by the New England Journal of Medicine, results confirmed that one in eight U.S children are considered obese by kindergarten age, with the ratio increasing through the elementary school years. By eighth grade, the study revealed one in five U.S. students are obese and another 17 percent are overweight.
In order to ensure our children’s future health and well-being, the importance of teaching children early about wellness and for the adults in the building to model wellness to them has emerged as a necessity.
As an Early Childhood Center, enrolling nearly 860 K-2 students, our School Improvement Team at Mattawan Early Elementary was determined to take a stand and set an example for our students, ourselves, and our community and focus on wellness for our children to ensure a healthy future. Six years ago we attended the Eat Healthy+Play=Smart Students conference and learned about several strategies we could implement to begin our wellness initiative.
The first thing that we did was to develop a School Wellness Team. The team with the consensus from the staff developed our beliefs about wellness for young children. These included: The importance of exercise, encouragement of more outside play time (less video games—school/home connection), exposure to a variety of foods, teaching and allowing “brain breaks”(movement, exercise, balance, fitness trail, meditation, etc.), water on desks (hydration), being good role models ourselves (no soda or coffee drinking in front of the children), teach reasoning behind healthy lifestyles and educating our parents about wellness.
Next we restructured our lunch periods to allow the children to play first and then eat. According to an article in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, schools that schedule recess before lunch report that students eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more milk, waste less food, and are better behaved on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the classroom.
A team was organized to put procedures together to implement the new structure. At our lunch periods, approximately 275-300 students eat at one time. They have 15 minutes to play and 25 minutes to eat. The team creatively found ways to ensure an organized system that would follow all federal guidelines and safely ensure children could exit the playground, wash hands, and be served in less than ten minutes. We worked with the Director of Dining Services to put together a nutrition education program. Periodic food tastings were held for students to taste different types of fruits and vegetables, from avocados to kiwi. Videos were made of the importance of eating nutritious foods and shown to the children. Our team sponsored an “Eat the Rainbow” on your plate week where traveling information bags went to classrooms filled with music and movement songs about nutrition, activities related to building a fun and nutritious food plate, and the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables.
Our next step was to solicit help from our parent organization to consider sponsoring a fundraiser that didn't involve the selling of food, wrapping paper, chocolates, cheese, etc. Our parent organization developed a Wildcat Walk-A-Thon where the children solicited pledges for walking on our high school track. Community sponsors purchased tee shirts for all of the children and parents/guardians, grandparents, and community members were invited to attend the event. The fifth annual Walk-A-Thon was held last September and it consistently raises nearly $30,000 for the school.
At our school, it was tradition that on each student's birthday, the student was allowed to bring in birthday treats for the classroom and also deliver them personally to “Specials” teachers, school personnel, and the principal. Unfortunately, the tradition was taking time away from classroom instruction and the school staff's workday. On some days, I would get up to 15 cupcakes during summer birthday celebrations and with the growing number of students with food allergies, it didn't seem fair that some students weren't able to enjoy the special treats with their classmates.
The Wellness Team decided to restructure the way celebration treats were handled in the classrooms. They did so in stages, beginning with education and encouragement rather than directives. The first step of the transition was to no longer allow children to travel out of the classroom to deliver birthday treats. This cut down on interruptions and minimized lost instructional time.
The next step was to encourage parents and teachers to provide healthier treats for all classroom celebrations and to encourage treat-free birthday celebrations. The first year several teachers tried out the birthday treat free procedures with excellent success. The second year, even more teachers signed on. It helped that the changes were encouraged, not mandated. Parents received notifications at kindergarten roundup and through school newsletters. In the third year of our transition, in order to continue to educate and support parents, the school staff created a list of nutritious snack suggestions and showcased examples of nutritious snacks at the annual fall Open House. Birthdays were now celebrated within the classroom with non-food items and activities for the birthday girl or boy, such as a special chair, book, pencil or a special choice—the method of celebration was left to the discretion of each teacher. A survey was sent to teachers to gauge their attitudes and practices regarding classroom treats and snacks, food-as-reward, and physical activity opportunities in and outside of the classroom. The survey showed nearly 80% of classrooms were birthday treat free.
With the adoption of the 2010 Michigan Nutrition Standards, the staff tackled becoming a 100% birthday treat free building. They met as small committee groups and came to consensus to ensure that food would not be used as rewards in the classroom, 50% of food at learning celebrations would be of good nutritional value, snacks in the classroom would follow the nutritional standards, no birthday treats would be allowed in any classroom, more opportunities for movement in and out of the classroom would be provided and even came up with procedures to ensure that food in the staff lounge, and vending machines contained more healthy and nutritious choices.
Our school participates in Walk to School Day each year, ACES Day (All Children Exercising Simultaneously), sponsors a Little Wildcat Trek road race instead of a traditional Field Day, installed a Fitness Trail in our hallways (simple pictures of students doing pushups, jumping jacks, etc. as stations), started a Walking Club at lunch, provides frequent movement breaks, power walks, and for over eight years has had a Motor Moms and Dads program that focuses on young children's balance, core strength, cross lateral connections, eye hand coordination, and visual motor development.
As we focused on the children's health, it became apparent that we needed to focus on our own health. We invited our health insurance company to give us information about their wellness plans. Our own health insurance cost increases are tied to our wellness now and many more staff members realized the change. The staff starred in physical fitness videos modeling for the students how they stay fit. Staff members got involved in running ½ Marathons, sponsoring Yoga classes after school, started Wogging (walking and jogging), participating in color runs, 5k's, etc. The Wellness Team put up informational bulletin boards highlighting staff wellness, gave out information to staff about wellness, sponsored a weight loss challenge, nutritional cooking classes, walking challenges, and the minimization of holiday weight gain. No mandates or directives were needed.
Overall, parents and staff have been positively receptive to the changes and are following the guidelines set forth. They appreciate the focus on wellness, the information provided to the children, and the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. Who would have thought that all of this would have started because of the principal receiving 15 cupcakes a day!