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December 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 4

First Steps to a Healthier School

Two simple and free changes to student routines create a more positive, healthy learning environment at this California elementary school.

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At 7:45 a.m., buses and cars pull up in front of the school, unloading students. Many file into the cafeteria to eat breakfast before the morning bell. Most students, however, hang out on the playground.
With almost the entire student body congregated on the playground, there is not much room for physical activity. Young students get bored waiting around for the first school bell and often get into mischief. Their desire to run and play with their friends cannot be contained. Unfortunately, accidents occur as they run into one another.
A group of older girls hang out by the restrooms. Although these girls are friendly, the 2nd graders are reluctant to enter and will later tell their parents that they could not use the restroom in the morning.
Some active boys find a ball and attempt to play a modified version of football on the cramped field. As they get going, they run into a group of 1st graders, knocking them to the ground. After the teacher on duty gives the younger students some care and attention, she turns around to see a scuffle. Investigating further, she realizes that four students were playing keep-away with another child's backpack. It started out as fun but quickly got out of hand.
Although a few students are active, the majority stand around the playground, waiting for the bell to ring. By the time it rings, three students are already waiting in the office to talk to the principal about the pushing and shoving that occurred that morning. The remainder of the students enter the classroom ready to begin the day's lessons.
These scenarios played out day after day for as long as anyone at Pendleton Elementary could remember.
Lunchtime followed a similar routine. Teachers lined the students up and walked them to the cafeteria, but most students remained seated at the tables with their lunches for only three to five minutes. Although playground supervisors encouraged students to sit and eat their entire lunch, the students were more focused on shoving a few bites in their mouths and running off to play for the remaining 37 minutes.
Once again, there was an overload of students on the playground, and the older students quickly took over the fields and courts. Of course, the blood sugar ran low toward the end of play time, right when it was time to go inside. After little nutrition and about 30 minutes of play, students returned to the classrooms. Before the teachers could focus on the afternoon lessons, they had to spend 10 to 15 minutes of instructional time diffusing arguments that had started on the playground.

Small Steps Produced Big Improvements

Obesity among U.S. youth has more than doubled in the past 20 years (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2009). Daily headlines report an upsurge of young people being diagnosed with weight-related illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, lung and breathing problems, and heart conditions (Marsh, 2009). It is predicted that for the first time ever, the life expectancy of young children will be shorter than that of their parents (Stenson, 2008). The medical field is bombarded with weight-related illnesses and injuries. Even television reality shows focus on weight loss. Overweight children have become the norm.
Although the U.S.'s obesity problem is too large to fix at one small site, Pendleton Elementary focused on counteracting this condition at the local level, making two easy changes that have benefited student health. Located in Buena Park, California, Pendleton Elementary serves 600 students in grades K–6, 53 percent of whom are English language learners, 75 percent of whom are Hispanic, and 73 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Physical activity is now a focus every morning. To increase students' activity before school, teachers roll a large stereo to the playground to motivate a daily walking program. Students no longer "hang out" in the morning before classes. Instead, they walk with friends around the playground field while enjoying popular, upbeat music. Teachers have reported that students seem more attentive, no longer dragging into their seats, droopy eyed and yawning. By increasing their blood flow and oxygen levels, students become invigorated and ready to learn.
An added benefit of the walking program that was not anticipated has been the increased socialization before school. Students enjoy up to 30 minutes of talking with friends as they trek around the field. Years ago, socializing before school was the norm as students would walk to school with their neighbors. Today, most students either take a bus or are dropped off by their parents. The daily morning walking routine simulates the past practice of walking to school with friends.
There is a stronger sense of community as the entire school begins the day with a common physical activity. Older students walk alongside younger students. Several parents have even joined the morning walks, expanding the Pendleton community and reinforcing their children's positive activity. The parents are thrilled to see Pendleton students exercising and becoming physically fit. Not only is the new morning scene dynamic and upbeat, but also the number of office referrals has decreased dramatically.

Play-First Lunch Improved Nutrition

The second change at Pendleton Elementary was to reschedule play time. The state and district have adopted a wellness policy to ensure that only healthy foods are offered to students during school hours, but this improvement seems useless if students throw the food in the garbage in order to spend more time on the playground. Instead of sending students straight to the cafeteria, the new schedule releases them to the playground at the start of lunch time. After 20 minutes of play, they join their friends in the cafeteria for a 20-minute eating period. Now, students enter the cafeteria hungry, and less food ends up in the garbage can, helping students maintain a healthier blood sugar level for learning.
Similar to the morning walking routine, an added benefit of the Play-First Lunch program has been the socialization at lunch tables. After an initial adjustment period, students became more relaxed and talked with one another during mealtime. Measurable benefits include improved student behavior on the playground and in the classroom, increased food and drink consumption, and increased time on task in the classroom during the afternoon.

The New Routine

At Pendleton Elementary, students are now ready to learn when they enter the classroom in the morning and after lunch. These two simple changes have created an atmosphere that promotes healthy bodies as well as stronger socialization skills. Although the new routines will not fix the problem of child obesity, they are significant first steps. Students at Pendleton Elementary are learning that proper nutrition and an active lifestyle are important parts of life. They did not learn this through a textbook, assembly, or any other added curriculum. Instead, they learned this simple but powerful message through new daily routines at school.

Marsh, K. (2009, July 22). Children and obesity: Today's parents have longer life expectancy than their children. Available:http://ezinearticles.com/?Children-and-Obesity——Todays-Parents-Have-Longer-Life-Expectancy-Than-Their-Children&id=2648121

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2009).Healthy youth: Childhood obesity. Available:www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/obesity

Stenson, J. (2008, April 23). Couch-potato culture may cut our lives short.MSNBC.com. Available:www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23358982/ns/health-aging/

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