People don’t usually find Zen in a first grade classroom.
But in Sheryl Dean’s class at Estes Hills Elementary, a roomful of little students are spread out across the floor, quietly channeling their inner yogi.
“In the past, someone might look at this and say, ‘You’re wasting academic time,’” Dean said. “But now I think we’re realizing it’s a part of academics. It’s a part of learning.”
Across the district, schools like Estes and McDougle Elementary School are incorporating new techniques and strategies in the classroom aimed at creating a healthier – and more health conscious – young generation.
And it’s working. Both Estes and McDougle were recently recognized on a national level by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization working to address childhood obesity, a growing concern among parents and educators across the county. The schools each won a Bronze-level award for their effort.
Encouraging fitness and curbing junk food consumption among young people may be a difficult task, but Liz Cartano, director of dining for the childhood nutrition department of Chapel Hill, said in this town, it’s a little easier from the start.
“This is Chapel Hill, so our starting point bar is already raised a little,” Cartano said. “These kids are eating hummus at home. When we do butternut squash, they’ve already seen and had it before.”
Under guidance from the Alliance, schools in the district have each formed “wellness councils,” made up of teachers and parents, who look at ways to improve healthy living choices together. The different councils all meet together once a month.
At Estes, teachers like Dean are beginning to incorporate more movement in the classroom throughout the day to get the blood flowing again.
“If I start seeing them squirm and squiggle around in their seats, I say, ‘OK, get up, we’re moving!’” she said. “And they get it out and they’re focused and on it again. Their energy levels pick back up, their focus level will pick back up.”
“Sometimes we’ll yoga after we’ve been sitting on the carpet for a long, long time, just to stretch our muscles,” said Caroline Felker, one of Dean’s students.
And the kids have been enjoying it.
“They just love it,” Dean said.
The school has also extended students’ gym time to twice-weekly sessions of 30 minutes each.
Watching over a sprawling, free-for-all obstacle course – with rope swings, rock wall climbing and push cars kids zipped past on – Melissa Pierce, the gym teacher at Estes, said the additional time with students is good for them, and she’d like more.
“I would love more time; I’d like an hour a day,” she said, just before she took note of a little overzealousness on the course. “Hey! Careful on the rope!”
Others have introduced programs to address diet. Mary Andrews, a teacher at Estes, brought a program to the school called “Cooking Matters,” a six-week course in which four families learn about good nutrition and healthy food preparation together with professionals at the school.
“The families have absolutely loved it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful family support system.”
Over at McDougle Elementary, getting kids more active inside class has been a large part of their new strategy, too. The school has incorporated “jamming minutes,” announced over the intercom, where everyone drops everything, stands up and moves to raise their circulation.
The school has also worked to get more use out of the limited gym time each week. Mary Ann Ristiano, the gym teacher, has redesigned her class activities to allow for more participation.
“P.E.’s no longer about one bat-one ball for the whole class,” she said. “We have equipment for every kid. So instead of me having one half of the class play the other, and one kid waiting for the puck all day, we have three mini-games at once, so everyone can get involved.”
Students at McDougle have also been given new incentives to get active, like “Dolphin Dollars” (named after the school mascot), which can be earned for participating and cashed in for some pretty unique prizes.
“Last year, if you had 250 dolphin dollars, you could roller-skate in the school hallways,” Ristiano said. “It’s a really cool for the kids to be able to put on their skates and skate around the school in the middle of the day.”
Some students participated in “Dolphin Dashers,” started as a new way for girls to socialize and exercise with their favorite teachers outside of the class.
Chelsea McElwee, the fourth-grade teacher who started the group, said it was so successful that the club had a wait list the first year they tried it.
“It’s really cool for the girls to see their teachers getting out there and running,” she said. “They look up to us, and when they see us do it, it motivates them.”
McDougle is also using a program called “Fit Families,” where students are encouraged to exercise together with their family at home, for the chance to win small prizes.
Max Reisinger, a fourth-grader, likes going on bike rides and walking to school together.
“I’ve been biking on two wheels since I was three years old,” he said. “And sometimes I like to walk to school, so we do that.”
The school also began a “fruit exchange,” aimed at making use of the healthy snacks some parents might pack against their child’s wishes.
“If kid has piece of fruit on lunch plate that they aren’t going to eat and it’s whole and unopened, they can bring it to the fruit exchange,” Ristiano said. “So now, instead of throwing it away, another kid can come up and choose it as a snack.”
And kids actually do, she said. Scarlett Steinert, the healthy living and athletics coordinator for the school district, believes kids need a little subtle help when it comes to picking snacks sometimes.
“You can’t set an apple by a Snickers, because the kid’s going to choose what they like more,” she said. “They may also like that apple, and if you only give them the apple, then that’s the choice they’re always going to make.”
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