Inspiring a Lifetime of Health

Wellness Programming for the Under-18 Crowd

By Dawn Klingensmith


full third of American children are overweight or obese. Eighty percent of obese teens will become obese adults. To reduce that percentage, early intervention and education is vital. Parks and recreation departments and facilities are uniquely poised to address the childhood obesity epidemic because their programs are affordable and far-reaching, and providing opportunities for kids to be active is part of their mission.

However, a shared belief has emerged among parks and recreation managers who are serious about reducing childhood obesity rates and instilling lifelong habits conducive to overall health. Their belief is that parks and recreation programming aimed at kids and teens should strongly emphasize nutrition, not just movement, and that opportunities should be created to teach youngsters healthy eating habits.

"I think it's critical to include nutrition education and connect it to physical activity and recreation, and that it's critical to do so with children early on," said Ann Wheat, a recreation supervisor for an after-school wellness program implemented by the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department in cooperation with other agencies.

It's critical because people's dietary habits and preferences are established at an early age. A child who grows into adulthood carrying excess weight and who is accustomed to inhaling junk food and eschewing vegetables is more likely to suffer hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, gall bladder disease and cancer. It's important, therefore, that youths learn to associate healthy foods with positive experiences and health outcomes so they will be more likely to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives.

Food for Thought

Phoenix's Nutrition Education and Training (NEAT) program is one such initiative. The city's parks and recreation department works with 18 different school districts at 81 sites to teach healthy eating habits as part of an after-school program aimed at underprivileged grade-schoolers who qualify for free or discounted school lunches.

In Phoenix and elsewhere, disadvantaged minorities tend to have higher rates of obesity than white middle-class kids. Some urban areas lack safe places to play, and families who rely on food pantries often end up with a lot of processed foods and miss out on fresh produce. On top of that, schools across the United States are shortening or eliminating recess and physical education classes due to pressure to raise standardized test scores, which translates to more time spent at desks. For example, in the Phoenix public school system, kids have PE just two times a week.

In response, there is a national movement afoot, spearheaded by such organizations as the Partnership for Play Every Day, to encourage kids to get 60 minutes of physical activity every day. An hour of daily exercise is integral to Phoenix's NEAT program—in fact, program leaders are required to submit documentation to their supervisors.

The NEAT program is reintroducing traditional childhood games such as hopscotch, hula hoop, jumping rope and tag. "There are about 600 ways you can play tag, and kids never get tired of that," said Lisa Quinonez, nutrition coordinator for Phoenix Parks and Recreation.

But in a two-birds-with-one-stone approach, the NEAT program ties physical games and activities, thematically or otherwise, to specific messaging about nutrition. NEAT's principal objectives are to encourage kids to drink 1 percent or fat-free milk, eat more fruits and vegetables, and recognize appropriate portion sizes.

"These are formal, structured nutritional lessons, but they're effective because they're fun, engaging and interactive," Wheat said. "It's not like sitting in a classroom. It's from a recreation approach."

And it's working.

"Some of the feedback we're getting from parents is, 'My son asks for lettuce and tomato on his hamburger. I was really surprised,'" Quinonez said.

Twice a year, NEAT leaders reinforce the material by having kids engage in a game of Jeopardy with a special twist that gets their bodies working as well as their minds. Kids sit in rows, as they would in a traditional classroom setup, but after the person in front answers a question, he or she sprints to the chair in the last row and all the other children move up a seat.

Broader Reach, Leaner Bodies

NEAT is aimed at a specific population, but the Phoenix Parks and Recreation department is invested in spreading the word about the importance of good nutrition to a broader audience, as well. At all major events, the department sets up a nutrition booth with interactive, educational games, including (space permitting) an inflatable bounce toy printed with nutritional messaging.

Last summer, the Austin (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department kicked off a far-reaching health and fitness initiative called P3, for Play-Pride-Prosper, with a 1K walk, a nutritious lunch and a day's worth of varied activities, including cycling, rock climbing, canoeing, archery, aquatics, tap dancing, hip-hop and boxing. Subsequently, the department saw a rise in enrollment for several of the featured activities.

Throughout the summer, P3 focused on encouraging kids to add an hour of physical activity to their daily schedule, consume a fruit or vegetable daily, and drink more water. Participants in the department's summer youth programs recorded their progress in journals as part of a six-week challenge to live more healthfully. Upon completion, they received certificates.

As part of the P3 initiative, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department implemented a mandatory food and nutrition policy for all youth programs. (See sidebar.) The policy is based on nutritional standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies. To ensure compliance, facility supervisors and program managers monitor the foods purchased and served at their centers not only for content but also for appropriate serving sizes. Nutritional policy violations result in personnel disciplinary action.

Like Phoenix and Austin, the Westerville (Ohio) Parks and Recreation Department wanted to signal its commitment to combating the childhood obesity epidemic by taking a far-reaching, nimble approach involving as many kids, programs and facilities as possible. In partnership with Columbus-based Nationwide Children's Hospital, the department launched FitQuest Kids' Club as part of a larger campaign to educate children and their parents about the importance of healthy eating habits and physical activity.

Passport to Fitness

More specifically, FitQuest Kids' Club aims to encourage kids to increase their fruit, veggie and water consumption while decreasing the amount of time spent in front of TV, computer and videogame screens.

The hospital's Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition provided nutrition guidance for a weekly nutrition and activity calendar that children ages 5 to 12 can use to help them make healthy eating and leisure decisions.

Based on the center's input, "We produced a tri-fold brochure and distributed it through health fairs, schools and community centers," said Mike Herron, the department's fitness manager. "It's meant to be put on the fridge to track the kids' progress on a weekly basis."

For each fruit, vegetable and water serving consumed, kids get to color in pictures of representative icons, such as an apple, a carrot or a drinking glass. For every 15 minutes of physical activity, they get to color in an athletic shoe.

Kids also track the number of hours they spend watching TV, playing videogames or using the computer, with the goal of bringing the tally down over time.

Upon achieving certain benchmarks, kids can redeem their calendars for sports balls (soccer, football, volleyball or basketball) provided by sponsors.

While FitQuest Kids' Club participants could sweat their way toward prizes in their own back yards, the Washington, D.C., Parks and Recreation Department used a similar concept to encourage participation in its own programs. The department distributes "passports" to kids and teens, who receive stamps whenever they take part in department-sponsored fitness activities. Once their passports are filled, they receive prizes, such as coupons for healthy eating establishments.

The passport concept can be used to advance nutrition education, as well. The Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department in Charlotte, N.C., partnered with USA Tennis to teach the benefits of participating in lifelong sports in its youth summer day camps. As part of the initiative, camp participants were challenged to "Go Around the World" by sampling various cuisines, thereby earning passport stamps. Kids who filled their passports were awarded coupons for commercial venues where they could be active, such as bowling alleys and skating rinks.

Show Me the Money

Aside from defraying program costs because marketing and other expenses are shared, partnering with nonprofits and other organizations helps ensure appropriate nutrition information gets disseminated. With regard to nutrition, "We don't always have answers for everything, so it behooves us to find experts on these subjects and develop partnerships," said Herron of Westerville.

For Westerville's FitQuest Kids' Club, Nationwide Children's Hospital made for an ideal and easily forged partnership because "hospitals have an interest in nutrition from the preventive side," Herron said.

Public agencies, health departments, school districts, police and fire departments, and affiliates of national organizations such as the American Heart Association are all prospective partners for initiatives aimed at curbing childhood obesity.

As far as attracting private-sector sponsors, anything having to do with children's well-being is an easy sell. Mecklenburg County has received sponsorship for some of its programs from Subway, the sandwich chain whose low-fat menu items famously helped spokesperson Jared shed more than 200 pounds.

When the Washington, D.C., Parks and Recreation Department adapted the American Heart Association's national "Recess by the River" program to address a childhood obesity problem in one of its wards, it secured funding and support from the heart association, the American Lung Association, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and the Washington Redskins. The event's partners and sponsors were instrumental in getting the point across to kids that "exercise can be fun and done either alone or with friends and family," said John Stokes, director of communications.

The Redskins' cheerleading squad "came out and did cheerleading moves with the kids," he added. "We wanted to underscore the message that there are so many different ways to get your heart pumping."

Activities included cheerleading, step aerobics, weightlifting, dancing, boot-camp-style workouts and kickboxing.

On a smaller scale, for a relatively low cost, community retailers such as grocery and sporting goods stores can contribute prizes for "passport" programs.

Consistency Is Key

Certain partnerships present challenges, though. In partnering with schools to implement NEAT, the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department made a point of looking into whether the public schools' lunch offerings were consistent with what kids were being taught to eat after school. It would be nice to be able to assume so, but considering the federal government once sought to classify ketchup as a fruit-and-vegetable serving, schools perhaps don't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

"We do run the risk of undermining what the children are being taught if the schools aren't providing healthy lunches," Wheat said. "It's important to provide consistent messaging."

Yet as far as inconsistencies go, parks and recreation departments might be their own worst enemy. It's all well and good to implement a nutrition policy like Austin's, but if it does not extend to concession stands and vending machines, kids might be getting mixed messages—a problem that is readily acknowledged by Joanna Mesecke, division manager of programs (recreation centers and athletics).

"Currently, the food and nutrition policy addresses only the programs the parks and recreation department directly administers and purchases food for—for example, summer camps, after-school programs, teen programs, etc. It also addresses the vending machines within our recreation centers," she said. "Unfortunately, it hasn't reached out to our concessionaires, specifically youth sports organizations, since they administer the programs at our facilities. We are working on it, however."

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

Austin Parks and Recreation Department's Food and Nutrition Policy for Youth Programs

Acceptable beverages:

  • Water
  • Fat-free or 1 percent low-fat milk (plain or flavored)
  • 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice
  • Calorie-free powdered beverages such as Crystal Light
  • Sports drinks containing no more than 100 calories
  • Fruit smoothies (16 ounces or less)

Acceptable snacks:

  • No more than 250 calories per serving
  • No more than 35 percent of calories from fat except nuts and seeds
  • No more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
  • No more than 360 mg of sodium per serving
  • No fried foods
  • No bakery items such as pastries or cupcakes except for birthday celebrations
  • No candy except on certain holidays, such as Halloween

Acceptable meals:

  • No more than 35 percent of calories from fat except nuts and seeds
  • No more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
  • No more than 360 mg of sodium per serving
  • No fried foods, bakery items or candy

What Moves Kids and Teens

Not all kids are athletic or excel at team sports, but that does not mean they don't enjoy active play. However, if kids are used to lounging on a beanbag in front of the TV, getting them up and moving can be a challenge. What works?

"What we have seen is that kids want to be kids. Overall, kids don't want anything too structured," said Max Behrens of the Portland (Ore.) Parks and Recreation Department. "A lot of our programs aren't in the tradition of mainstream sports. We try to make more options available—anything to get kids active. We're trying to get away from the concept that to be active, you need to be part of organized sports."

Given Oregon's trail systems and natural resources, combining environmental education with physical activities in the great outdoors makes sense and is a good way to get kids moving while having fun and acquiring knowledge and skills all at the same time.

In Washington, D.C., a newly formed track and field team called DC Speed proved to be a hit with kids ages 8 to 13, many of whom took to the idea of battling their own fatigue in order to cross a finish line more readily than the idea of battling opponents for control of a ball in order to score a goal.

Track and field is accessible in a number of other ways. "It's not a very expensive sport to get involved in," Stokes said. And in Washington, D.C., kids who live in financially disadvantaged wards are at greater risk of obesity, so the fewer financial hurdles, the better.

It's easy to imagine kids chasing other kids in short bursts of energy to transfer cooties on the playground, but will they actually show up someplace at an appointed hour, strap on their running shoes and go the distance? After all, running is hard.

"I don't think it's a hard sell at all," Stokes said. "It allows participants to interact with other kids and helps them gain a positive self-image."

In fact, the track and field program was so successful in its first year that it will expand in 2009 to include more kids and meets.

As all parks and recreation managers know, teens are a different animal. To try to reach this tricky demographic, many parks and recreation departments have teen councils that meet on a regular basis.

"Teen councils help us shape our programming by telling us what's working well and what's missing," said Behrens, who oversees Portland's teen outreach program.

What Portland learned from teen councils altered its marketing approach. For starters, the department removed the term "youth" from program descriptions meant to attract teens. "They don't like that word. It's not how they see themselves," Behrens said.

Based on teen council input, the department is also working toward enabling teens to receive updates and register for programs via text messaging.

In addition, the Portland Parks and Recreation Department surveyed teens to find out which activities they were more likely to appreciate and take part in. The most frequent request was for late-night programming. Reassuringly, the teens ranked two physical activities—dancing and playing dodge ball—right up there with having access to videogames and a game room.

Teens also tend to like physical activities that allow them to keep building on their skills. "If you think about it, that's the allure of videogames, too—it's all about getting to the next level," Behrens said. "But the social aspect is also important to teens."

Rock climbing is a skill-building activity and is social, as well, so the department purchased two 20-foot portable climbing walls two summers ago. The department also began offering skills classes for skateboarding so teens could learn to safely "show off" at the city's skateparks.

Responding to teens' No. 1 request, Portland Parks and Recreation expanded its teen centers' hours of operation, with some staying open as late as 11 p.m. on Saturdays. Physical activities such as dancing, basketball, hip-hop classes, yoga, swimming, Dance Dance Revolution tournaments and dodge ball are offered alongside more socially oriented leisure activities, such as open mike nights.

There also are Nintendo Wii video game systems for teens to play with. Before jumping to the conclusion that providing these systems does nothing to counteract the obesity epidemic, talk to anyone who's ever played some of the more active games on Wii, such as boxing or Olympic sports. Not only is it easy for players to get a workout, but if they're too gung ho, it's also possible to pull a muscle or suffer some other "sports-related" injury.

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