Catching Kids Getting Healthy

Catch Kids Club at Keene Recreation Center in Keene, N.H.

By Dawn Klingensmith

Andy Bohannon was shocked. He knew that the percentage of children nationwide who are overweight or obese, or at risk of becoming so, is alarmingly high. In 2004, it stood at 28 percent. But when he learned that New Hampshire's rate was even higher (32 percent), he was astounded—and vowed to do something about it.

But though the reach of the city of Keene's Parks and Recreation department is fairly broad, its coffers aren't deep. Bohannon, a recreation programmer for the department, needed a program he could implement quickly and economically to combat childhood obesity in his part of the state.

Of three established programs under consideration, Bohannon chose the CATCH Kids Club (CKC), a physical activity and nutrition education program designed for elementary school children in after-school and summer settings. Bohannon sent away for CKC resource materials, which enabled staff with no formal training to start encouraging 5- to 12-year-olds to make healthy dietary decisions and engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity at the Keene Recreation Center on a daily basis.

CKC teaching aids include an "activity box" containing 325 cards with detailed instructions on facilitating games, activities and skill-development exercises, all designed to get kids moving. All the games are non-elimination, so no one is ever sidelined, left out or forced to deal with feelings of ineptitude. Recognizing that after-school organizations' resources vary widely, and that weather and concurrent programming can affect the availability of space from one day to the next, the kit includes a "Limited Space and Formations" section. CKC also provides a 256-page nutrition manual with 32 scripted teaching sessions.

"The Keene initiative started focused and small, and they have continued to train, strengthen and grow their CATCH Kids Club initiative throughout the years," said Kathy Chichester, national CATCH coordinator. "Keene is truly a model program for CATCH. Their initiative is one of community agency collaboration. … I am often asked, 'What agencies should be involved in child health, and what roles can each of us play to support programs like CATCH?' When I consider the role of parks and recreation, and the role they can make to the process of promoting children's health, my thought is always, 'Let me introduce you to the folks from Keene.'"

Keene's is a "model program" even considering—indeed, especially considering—its humble beginnings in 2004. Keene's CKC initiative has come a long way from those first steps. However, cost-effectiveness and simplicity are still major hallmarks. No fancy equipment or facilities are needed. The children exercise in a multipurpose room. The program is facilitated by five part-time college students who will eventually enter the education or recreation fields and who rely on the same basic instructional materials.

Keene's CKC program is part of a communitywide effort initiated by Advocates for Healthy Youth, whose mission is to improve health among elementary school children and, by extension, their parents. For its part, the recreation department implemented the program with funding provided by Foundation for Healthy Communities, which works with hospitals and other like-minded organizations to improve health in New Hampshire. Now, a user fee of $165 per child—which covers the entire school year for about a dollar a day—pays for the programming. Forty children are currently enrolled. A summertime version of the program, which takes place at city playgrounds, reaches an additional 150.

The way the program works now, children arrive at the recreation center after school, eat their snacks and work on homework until 4 p.m., when they migrate to the multipurpose room for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Within this relatively informal framework, staff members and children discuss healthy dietary choices as part of an ongoing conversation.

Bohannon said there's ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that "the messages being conveyed are brought home by the children and implemented in that setting, as well." He added, "I have parents come up to me and say, 'Thank you. My daughter used to eat potato chips every afternoon, and now she wants nothing to do with them.'"

Many organizations successfully use a more structured approach to nutrition education. However, at the Keene Recreation Center, CKC participants seem more likely to adopt healthy eating habits when they feel they are being spoken with as opposed to lectured to, Bohannon said.

"When we first started, we alternated physical activity days with nutrition education days," he explained, adding that now there is no "classroom time" and exercise takes place for a full hour each day, which aligns with the Centers for Disease Control's recommendations.

The children receive recognition and positive reinforcement for bringing healthy snacks from home in the form of stickers on a wall chart.

But feedback from participants and their parents, not stickers, is the true measure of the program's success, Bohannon said.

One parent approached him and quipped, "I didn't realize this program would cost me more than advertised—I had to go out and buy all new snacks because the ones I bought have no nutritional value and my son refuses to eat them."

"I know the program is working," Bohannon said. "In the beginning, kids go off to the side because they can't catch their breath, but eventually they can go for the full hour. Discipline problems go down when they're active."

Bohannon's favorite success story involves a little girl who went off to the side, certain she was gravely ill. Why? Because her forehead was dripping. "She had never perspired before," he said.

Now, she sweats with the best of them, and has fun in the process.


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