Healthy eating habits and regular physical activity fuel students to be the best learners they can be. And teachers play a key role in promoting student wellness as they spend significant time with students and serve as critical role models.
This is the key behind our Fit to Learn program. Fit to Learn is an innovative professional development program for Chicago educators. It provides practical methods for making health and wellness a regular part of the school experience while meeting academic standards in math, reading, science, social studies, art, music and more. Just as important, Fit to Learn is about developing lifelong skills. More than 300 teachers have participated in the program over the past seven years. At this year’s summer session, which serves as the kickoff for a new school year, over 30 teachers completed the training.
The summer session equips teachers with the knowledge about why healthy students are better learners so they feel confident talking to others and their administrators about this important link. The training also features strategies and tools to help teachers manage their classrooms in health-promoting ways—celebrations that focus on the student and not on unhealthy treats, integrating healthy messages into all subjects and physical activity that occurs throughout the school day.
“Our objective is to make healthy habits a routine part of how kids learn,” said Rosa Ramirez Richter, HSC’s Director of Chicago Programs and Policy. “Fit to Learn is about bringing together teachers and equipping them with the skills and resources to change the way we think about wellness in the classroom, one simple shift at a time.”
As the program started, educators and teachers were asked to introduce themselves and explain what they would change at their schools. “If I could change anything at my school, it would be to incorporate healthy eating habits,” said Erika Yam, from Randolph Elementary School. Fit to Learn offers a nutrition education tip sheet for educators to help incorporate healthy eating habits.
Teaching the value of healthy eating through nutrition education helps kids grow healthy, stay healthy and be their best learners in school. Stephanie Folkens, program coordinator at Common Threads, talked about how to integrate food and health education into the classroom, and how to help children identify healthy foods through Common Threads’ interactive online modules for students. Common Threads is an organization that provides nutrition education programming to children, families and teachers in underserved communities.
Not only is eating healthy important, but so is physical activity for students. Teresa Black Jordan, from Chopin Elementary stated, “If I could change anything at my school, it would be having more organized recess.” Physical activity is important to ensuring students’ brains are up and running and ready to learn. The Fit to Learn program provides teachers with practical suggestions on how to incorporate structured physical activity.
Dr. Sarah Buck, an associate professor at Chicago State University, presented on how physical activity affects the brain. “If students do enough physical activity, they develop fitness,” she said. Fitness is important because, as with anything, it’s another brain exercise that increases brain activity and performance. “When we talk about performance, it means students are more accurate and faster,” Dr. Buck said.
Being prepared for school also starts at home. “If I could change anything at my school, it would be to help the parents feel more aware of what is going on in the classroom,” said Arlena Duncan from Langston Hughes Elementary School. Parents can get involved when it comes to health at home and in the classroom. Other teachers brought up that classroom parties should have health food provided by parents, rather than just cake, cookies and candy. Teachers also mentioned they wanted to talk to parents about cooking more, instead of buying processed foods or empty calorie foods. Healthier snacks for classroom celebrations can help reinforce healthy habits.
The teachers who completed the training will now go back to their schools and start the school year off in a healthy way. One participant said: “This was one of the best professional developments I have attended. Data was interesting, great ideas for incorporating movement and healthy food into the classroom. Activities were engaging and useful!”
Over the next few months, Fit to Learn will host focused booster sessions on specific aspects of health and the classroom, such as yoga in the classroom, staff health and wellness, worm composting, nutrition education and schools gardens. Join us for great opportunities to incorporate health and wellness in classrooms! For more information on Fit to Learn, contact Kristi Cox via email or at 312-419-1810.