Adding Apples + Subtracting Sweets = Healthy Classrooms

June 19, 2013

Small curriculum changes can help make the healthier choice the easy choice.

by Mark Bishop

As a parent, I am often reminded how important it is to have a consistent message between home and school to support healthy food choices. Schools should help families make the healthier choice the easy choice, not make it harder, and there is a great opportunity to do this by making some small but key changes to curriculum and textbook assignments. These changes can be so simple: my son’s math homework doesn’t need to say, “How many cans of pork & beans can you buy with $5?” when apples, wheat bread or kiwi are perfectly reasonable options.

For that reason, I was so thrilled to participate with our friends at the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Association of Educational Publishers and the Association of American Publishers at a White House release of a set of new voluntary standards for incorporating health into school curriculum. Although these guidelines are voluntary and educational publishers are by no means bound to them, we hope that they will embrace these simple, dynamic and ultimately common-sense changes to empower teachers, school administrators and parents who want to encourage the formation of healthy habits for their children. The skills mentioned in the guidebook are ones that will be important for children as they grow up, not just in school, but in life: media literacy and how to analyze marketing messages, using the skills they learned in math and science class to effectively monitor their health and understanding the ecology, geography and sociology that tie into where their food comes from.

These standards include small changes that could have a very big impact: swapping out a cupcake for an apple in a math word problem or creating a writing exercise around the importance of handwashing. These are bite-sized ideas that will not make it harder to teach or cost more money, but are easy changes that can help schools promote a consistent message for health. There is overwhelming evidence, pointed to time and time again, that healthy students are better learners and healthy students achieve more in school. This is common sense, and we should all be striving to help schools create conditions that support the whole child through health and learning. In short, these small changes are big.

The guidelines are available online, and they are worth a read. They are straightforward, full of common sense, and include some very creative ideas you can bring to your school. For example, the guide provides the example of a third-grade history class in Mississippi that used a tug-of-war game to illustrate the history of the Civil War in a way that was active, dynamic and fun. A healthy recipe contest could incorporate math (measurements and adding nutritional items like calories or protein), science (measuring how much energy the recipe could provide) and language arts (following directions and composing a recipe). These activities are fun for students, incorporate health and will be a great resource for teachers who are looking to present the curriculum in new and exciting ways.

But what do these guidelines mean for parents like you and me? There are two key points I hope you leave with. First, we should share these guidelines with our schools, school wellness teams, teachers and school administrators. These guidelines help frame a conversation about health in terms that educators understand. You may be able to spark excellent conversations in your school with them and even come up with some ideas.

Second, if your school is ordering new textbooks, make sure your administration asks your suppliers if their books are following these guidelines. Demand from your vendors that they be part of your wellness initiative by supplying textbooks that help create conditions for health and learning. If they’re not making these changes or incorporating health into the curriculum, find out why and remind them of the positive impact a few key changes could have on student health, academic achievement, and laying the groundwork for a healthy life.