Guest Column - March 2008
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Sajai Foundation

A Little Education Goes a Long Way

By Melissa Hanson

n 2007, an innovative child wellness program called Wise Kids was introduced through beta tests at five park and recreation agencies in Tampa, Fla., Joliet, Ill., East Hartford, Conn., Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minn. Created by Minneapolis-based Säjai Foundation, Wise Kids aims to educate and inspire children ages 6 to 11 to make wise nutrition and activity choices. The foundation chose to focus on reaching kids in out-of-school settings because this is where children spend most of their free time.

Children are able to make the right choices about what they eat and how they play, if only they have the right knowledge. Wise Kids reaches kids in after-school and summer programs and ultimately enables them to live healthier lives. Through beta tests, the foundation showed that the program can have a positive effect on children—and even on their parents.

The simple concept of energy balance

Over the course of nine weeks, Wise Kids teaches children the concept of energy balance—Calories In = Calories Out—with the goal of helping them adopt healthy eating and activity habits. Each session follows the simple Learn, Do, Play format: 15 minutes of self-directed concept learning, 15 minutes of learning activities to reinforce the concepts and 30 minutes of activities to promote learning through physical movement and fun.

Program materials include a tool kit, games, marketing materials, a training guide and CD, and a Web-based program evaluation tool. Illustrated workbooks are provided to each child to guide self-directed activity and increase understanding, and program leaders are supplied with all the materials they need to administer the turnkey program and make it an engaging and active learning experience.

According to Sandy Fiallo, superintendent of playgrounds and centers at Tampa Parks and Recreation, there is a great need for this type of program because many children are not learning these concepts in school. "In many school districts in the state of Florida, PE classes are being eliminated because of the demands of curriculum and testing," Fiallo said. "I believe that as parks and recreation professionals our role is to help our children get a real balance of wellness education in their lives. Wise Kids is the right program at the right time. It builds and reinforces good habits and asks the kids to adapt them to their everyday lives. We were very fortunate to have been selected as a beta site for the program."

Fiallo selected two of the city's recreation centers—Kate Jackson and Copeland—to draw a diverse group of children into the program. Each site had specific rooms designated for the program, and the staff decorated bulletin boards with messages that reinforced the theme.

The program must have struck a nerve with parents, because registration for the summer nine-week program was filled in just one day. By the end of the summer, Fiallo knew she had accomplished something of lasting value for kids and her recreation leaders.

Running two hours daily from June 4 to Aug. 10, the Tampa Wise Kids program was broken down into a simple format that had children compile a worksheet and discuss a presentation on nutrition, and then proceed into an activity component that illustrated the key concepts. Such activities might include circuit training or an obstacle course. According to Fiallo, the kids were not just sedentary and being lectured to—they actually got to use and apply what they were learning about energy balance.

"I went around and watched our district supervisors present two Wise Kids elements followed by several reinforcing activities," Fiallo said. "What I noticed is that even during the presentations the kids were really engaged. There was no 'sit still, be quiet, don't bother your neighbor' type of stuff. The kids were really listening and absorbing the information. We say to kids 'challenge yourself to get a little healthier, don't compare yourself to others.'"

At the conclusion of the program a survey was conducted with every child to gauge how much his or her attitudes and behaviors had changed. In almost every category studied there were positive improvements. (See Sidebar, "Positive Improvements.") In addition, Tampa sent a questionnaire to the participating parents: 87 percent said that they would recommend the program to a friend, and 80 percent said that Wise Kids had sparked a conversation about health at home.

"What we like about Wise Kids was that unlike other fitness programs Wise Kids pools it all together—the fitness and the nutrition," Fiallo said. "Wise Kids gave us a very structured program that provided our leaders with everything they needed to present the curriculum. The materials for leaders were illustrated in step-by-step fashion so even those without a wellness background could review the literature and then step forward and lead the program. And from a child's perspective, the entire experience was approached in a fun and rewarding way with engaging worksheets that kept kids focused."