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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Weight of the Nation

By Peter DeWitt — October 23, 2012 4 min read
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The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Weight of The Nation

Our students don’t get outside enough. When I taught second grade in a city school I brought my students outside for recess and a little girl came running up and thanked me for taking the outside. It’s not like she was the first student to thank me for giving them recess but it was her words that followed that bothered me the most. “This is the only time I get to go outside. My mom doesn’t let me play outside when I’m home.”

It wasn’t that her mom was mean; it was that her neighborhood wasn’t safe. She never got the opportunity to go outside and grow like other children her age. I had always incorporated movement into our days. We began every morning with aerobics for about ten minutes and then did other activities throughout the day. I can’t sit still for more than fifteen minutes so I can’t imagine that any 7 year old can either. However, hearing that going outside was beyond her reach really bothered me.

We have a perfect storm happening in America. We have kids who do not eat healthy or get enough exercise and they are obese. Actually, our childhood obesity rates are climbing and they are staggering. In addition, many children lack the ability or desire to go outside. Some of those children can’t because they live in unsafe neighborhoods but others do not go outside because they don’t feel like it.

Weight of the Nation
The other day I watched “Weight of the Nation” on HBO. It was part III in a four part series. It was disturbing to watch this unfold in front of me. It’s not like I didn’t know that we have a very unhealthy nation or that children don’t get outside enough or get enough exercise. I have written about it before:

Improving the Forecast for Learning
Poverty Matters: The Obesity Epidemic
I Failed Recess...Because I Don’t Play!

I’m a big fan of technology. I enjoy getting on Twitter and have tried flipping a variety of things like my faculty meetings and parent communication. However, I also enjoy going for a run...ok...jog...or a bike ride. The students in our school go outside every day unless it’s really cold (below 20 degrees) or raining. The teachers I work with like to get their students up and moving. Sitting still feels stale.

If we can’t go outside we have started a new program called Adventures to Fitness. During recess our students have the opportunity to participate in a 30 minute exercise program that incorporates healthy moving and vigorous exercise. Don’t worry, it’s not a boot camp and students are allowed to participate for a few minutes at a time until they build stamina. This program helps us provide healthier moments for students which we know will help them learn better.

Elementary principal Denis Sibson from upstate, N.Y. said, “I joined the 4th graders on an adventure to Egypt to find a missing medallion. We ran through a sandstorm, climbed the pyramids, jumped across the Nile River on the backs of crocodiles, and all in all had a blast as we worked up quite a sweat!

These opportunities for students should not be few and far between, especially when you think about the following statistics offered by the Weight of the Nation series. The following are just a few:

• In the United States in 2010, over 63% of people are overweight or obese.
• The percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5% in 1980 to 18% in 2008.
• 40% of every dollar spent on food is spent on food prepared outside the home.
• According to Nielsen data, comparing 2008 to 2010, preschool children were exposed to 50% more TV ads for energy drinks in 2010.
• The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008.

President John F. Kennedy said “A nation is only as strong as its citizens,” and the above statistics show that our nation seems to lack strength and our students are suffering. Kids who do not get outside enough lack the motivation they need to engage in school. Unfortunately, many schools are not helping the situation because they are replacing recess with more “academic” time and that only contributes to the unhealthiness of our children. “Studies suggest that as many as 40 percent of schools nationwide have cut recess--citing lack of time, supervision, and resources” (CNN Health). State education departments should take money away from testing and invest in playgrounds for schools.

Schools alone cannot turn our unhealthy nation around. Healthy lifestyles begin at home. However, through the use of adult education programs that take place at school and local community centers parents can learn how to choose healthier options for their children. Even some grocery stores offer nutrition experts who can help parents choose better foods and cook healthier meals.

Schools can do their part by offering healthier lunch choices, maintaining or increasing recess and ensuring that children are getting to move in the classroom. At school our parents participate in the Field Goods food pick-up. Parents can order a bag of vegetables and herbs and they pick it up at school every Friday. Field Goods uses vegetables grown on local farms in the Hudson Valley region and they offer recipes to go along with the vegetables.

Schools should also have to make sure that all students are participating in recess. One great Physical Education (PE) teacher that I know has “Come Play With Me” Days where parents are invited to participate in PE class with their children. That is a perfect way to build a bridge between home and school, which is important because the weight of the nation depends on it.

What do you do to keep kids healthy? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.