It's abundantly clear that when it comes to healthy living, you've gotta start 'em young. No matter what type of diabetes you mighty have in mind, a mentality that includes healthy food and exercise choices is an important one that kids need to be made aware of at an early age.
A recent CDC report shows the rates of type 2 diabetes in children and teens will increase by almost fifty percent by 2050. Although type 2 diabetes only affects 11% of children, it's clear that the problem won't fix itself. So if you're going to start 'em young, then you have to get everyone involved: parents, teachers, coaches, babysitters, grandma... everyone.
In particular, an online educational resource known as Discovery Education has teamed up with WebMD and Sanford Health to create free lesson plans for teachers called fit 4 the classroom (no relation to the D-organization fit4D, though). The program is an off-shoot of WebMD's fit program, which is a set of at-home tools for parents and their kids. This program was launched in September, and schools are encouraged to have teachers incorporate these lesson plans and tools into their established curriculum, alongside the basics like science and math, so that students can "learn how to make positive, healthy lifestyle choices" -- ostensibly something kids are not learning regularly now!
Lessons are broken up into four topics:
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- Food, which focuses on nutrition
- Move, which focuses on exercise
- Recharge, which focuses on relaxation
- Mood, which focuses on stress and emotions
Each section has a variety of quizzes, videos and activities to get kids thinking about their health. For example in the Food lesson, students learn the difference between "good carbs" and "bad carbs" and they learn about the difference in sugar between soda, orange juice, milk and water.
That's pretty forward-thinking, considering the only thing taught in school about carbohydrates historically was the "food pyramid," which encouraged eating lots of high-carb foods without much differentiation.
"The lessons plans, activities and videos created for fit 4 the classroom all tie into the Common Core Standards of science, technology, engineering and math, making it simple for teachers to integrate health lessons into the lessons they are already teaching in class — from learning about kinetic and potential energy to creating math charts and graphs," explains Dr. Hansa Bhargava, WebMD's expert pediatrician.
The program also offers a big incentive to teachers in the form of the fit 4 the classroom sweepstakes: From now until February 14, 2013, teachers can enter to win $10,000, with $5,000 going to their own classroom and $5,000 going to the winning school to be used for health and wellness programs.
Laying it on Teachers
Offering more resources for teachers is great, but how effective will this be? Is it really fair to expect teachers to incorporate more into their already harried schedules, alongside pressure from administrators and parents to continually do more with fewer resources?
Fit 4 the Classroom is certainly not the first attempt at beefing up health education at schools, and the effort continues to grow with programs like First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. Over the years, there has been a big push to remove access to sodas and processed foods in schools and replacing hot food lunches with healthier options (not that everyone has been happy with the results). Programs like Corpus Christi's Lock in Healthy Living also bring more fitness and nutrition education into before-and-after school programs.
We sent the link to the fit 4 the classroom website to Hope Warshaw, a dietician, author, and Certified Diabetes Educator, to see what she thinks about the new program, and whether or not incorporating health and fitness lesson plans at elementary schools would actually make a difference.
Although she hasn't seen the program in action, Hope says, "I think what is clear about helping kids learn to eat healthier, be physically active and prevent becoming overweight/slow down weight gain is that we have to create healthier environments in which our kids can live, learn and play -- a healthy environment and healthy habits in 'surround sound.' I think the most powerful ways that parents, teachers and others in children's lives can impact our children's health/weight/disease prevention is to walk the walk, not just talk the talk."
The program has only been around for a few weeks so Dr. Bhargava didn't have any teacher feedback to share about how successful the lesson plans are just yet.
Self-Regulation and Real Food
To get some parent feedback, we showed the website to Hallie Addington, D-mom to a 4-year-old daughter with diabetes (she blogs here) and a kindergarten teacher in Ohio. Hallie says that a curriculum like this could aid in what teachers already deal with.
"Lots of us use movement breaks to transition between activities and I know the kids would like the fitness challenge activity," Hallie said, after reviewing the website. "I think the Mood and Recharge sections could be useful as well. We are increasingly seeing kids who have no idea how to self-regulate. They get mad and hit or throw or become violent. They are so out of tune to their bodies and moods that they have no idea it's coming or how to stop it. We find we are teaching these skills more and more."
While the program isn't built directly on anything diabetes-related, the topic of overall nutrition and fitness is critical in slowing down the obesity epidemic. Although we know that obesity isn't the sole factor in type 2 diabetes, it's a major contributing factor. We also know that while a healthy home life is important for healthy kids, that kind of support is not always available for kids.
"I teach in a low-income school and many don't have much food at all," says Hallie. "And what they have is junk. Educating them on good food and why it's important is a good step. If their parents won't do it, then at least they can learn it somewhere! That's a societal thing..."
"I feel like grocery stores are 90% stuff that isn't really food. Kids have no idea that Doritos are not food!"
— D-mom blogger & kindergarten teacher Hallie Addington, on teaching healthy habits in the classroom
WebMD's Dr. Bhargava explains that with kids spending half their time in school, education about healthy living really needs to be incorporated at school, as well as at home. "The fit 4 the classroom initiative leverages that time to further foster a consistent message about the importance of a healthy lifestyle that can be reinforced across all aspects of children's lives," she says.
While CDE Hope Warshaw believes much of the responsibility around raising kids with healthy eating and living habits lies with the parents, she says it's also clear that kids need as much support as they can get, especially with more and more children spending time away from their parents.
Our thoughts on this program mirror Hope's: it certainly isn't fair to shift all the burden to the classroom, when family environment is so important. But learning about health as part of a core curriculum is still a good idea. After all, when it comes to raising healthy kids, the more help the merrier!