Keep Those Children Moving!
January 11, 2006
URBANA - Chicago Head Start teachers noticed an alarming trend a few years ago: an increasing number of obese children in their classrooms. So they asked University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educators for help.

Extension specialist Robin Orr was eager to work on this problem. "I had decided that reaching three- to five-year-olds was the key to solving the obesity epidemic," Orr said. "You can't begin early enough to teach good nutrition and the importance of exercise."

That was the beginning of Healthy Moves for Healthy Children, which has reached an estimated 2,000 preschoolers in the Chicago area to date and has now moved into 12 Head Starts in Decatur.

Pascasie Adedze, a U of I graduate student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, works with Extension's nutrition and wellness educators to train the Head Start teachers, who are given a set of laminated cards that contain ideas for physical activities and easy-to-use recipes the children can make in the classroom.

After the teachers and staff are trained, they're encouraged to teach one nutrition activity a week and to keep the kids moving by using the activities on the cards. Then the educators go in once a month to help out with the program, she said.

"During childhood, nutrition and healthy activity work together to create healthy bones," Adedze said. "We like to see 60 minutes of weight-bearing activity, like running and jumping, and 2 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk each day so the children will have strong bones when they are grown."

Children who are inactive tend to remain inactive as adults, she added. Active adults report having learned motor and sports skills as children, and their confidence and skill carries over into adulthood, increasing the chances of an active adult lifestyle.

The Head Start teachers have their work cut out for them countering the wrong messages the preschoolers have already received. Their goal is not only to change the students' ideas about healthy foods but to send a message home to the children's parents.

"At some centers, 30 percent of the children were already noticeably overweight," Adedze said. "One reason might be that, in some neighborhoods, it was dangerous for them to go out to play. But, if they stayed inside and watched TV, they were exposed to a lot of wrong messages about food in the commercials they saw."

Phyllis Herring, a nutrition and wellness educator in Decatur, says nutrition and exercise are family issues. "We've all become more sedentary. We sit in front of the television and computer, eat on the run, and consume foods that are high in fats and sugars.

"But, when children come home from Head Start and teach a younger brother or sister to do a fun activity they learned in class that day--something like Red Light, Green Light or Run, Rabbit, Run, we've made progress," she said.

"I watched the Chicago Head Start staff make a blueberry smoothie with the children, doing everything from washing the fruit to mixing the ingredients to pouring the finished smoothie into the glass. The kids were having such fun, and they were learning that it's fun to prepare healthy food," said Adedze.

"We're challenging their ideas about what's good to eat. The children may moan and groan when I make a fresh tomato salsa, but I notice that they eat every bit of it," said Herring.