Signs of a Healthy School

Children planting garden for school.
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Why do we need healthy schools? A school is a place for learning, and learning is not at all limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nor is it limited to the classroom. Kids are learning while they're at home, on the playground, and in the cafeteria too. So your child's school has an important role to play in helping students learn about health and wellness. Look for these signs that the school is taking this issue seriously.

Sign of a Healthy School: Physical Education and More Movement

Gym classes are not necessarily required in every school, so find out what your state's and district's policy is. Ideally, kids would have physical education classes every day, as well as free play in at least one recess period.

The School Health Policies and Practices Study (or SHPPS, conducted periodically by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess school health policies) gives the following stats:

  • 60 percent of districts require and 34 percent recommend that elementary schools provide regularly scheduled recess.
  • 12 percent of districts require and 33 percent recommend that elementary schools provide regular "physical activity breaks" outside of physical education class and recess. In middle school, the percentages drop slightly to 11 percent required and 23 percent recommended.

Schools can also promote physical activity with standing desks, by supporting after-school clubs, and by encouraging kids to walk to and from school.

Water, Water Everywhere

Water is the ideal beverage for kids, and many don't get enough of it. Schools can help by making sure there is cold, clean, free drinking water readily available to students, in the form of drinking fountains or bottle-fillers. (There's a connection between water availability in school and lower obesity rates.) And students should be allowed to keep a water bottle handy in class and in the halls.

Sensible Food Policies

If your child's school receives federal funding, it needs to comply with nutritional standards on the foods it serves for breakfast and lunch, as well as any other food options that might be available (like vending machines or snack food stores). As a parent, you don't often have a lot of control over what is served, or what your kids purchase. But you can work with your child to make good choices.

And you might be surprised by what kids do choose. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 introduced big changes to school nutrition standards (which govern school lunch and breakfast programs that receive federal government funding). A panel of medical experts rewrote the standards. They took effect starting in 2012, and critics doubted that kids would accept the new menus and foods.

But a three-year study of students in 12 middle schools determined that kids did accept the changes to their cafeteria trays. For example, after the standards changed, kids didn't put as many vegetables on their lunch plates. But they did eat more of what they chose, for a net increase in veggies consumed vs. tossed in the garbage.

So you might be pleasantly surprised by school meal offerings. Also, keep an eye on policies around food brought in from home, and whether food rewards are allowed (they shouldn't be).

A Wellness Committee With Cool Programming

A school wellness committee can help infuse a whole school community with healthy habits. These committees are usually comprised of parents, staff, and sometimes students. They create an array of programs to improve health, physical activity, and nutrition for kids and their families—such as:

  • Regular before- or after-school fitness opportunities for students and parents
  • Healthy recipe contests, complete with tastings, prizes, and a cookbook of entries
  • Promotions for healthy snacks with unexpected, kid-friendly suggestions on a handout, and/or samples for tasting at lunchtime, recess, or after-school
  • Walk-to-School Day and/or Bike-to-School Day observances
  • Walking school bus set-up
  • Discussion sessions about topical books or movies; guest speakers on family wellness
  • Family fitness events, such as an all-school kickball tournament or open gym time
  • Cooking and nutrition classes for kids and adults (taught by a dietitian or students from a dietetics program at a local college)
  • Wellness-related gifts and prizes for school events
  • Field trips to farmers' markets, athletic facilities, and parks
  • An incentive program to track and reward healthy behaviors (such as eating fruits and vegetables, limiting screen time, walking or biking to school, or trying new physical activities)
  • School garden set-up and maintenance (with kids' help, of course)
  • Fundraising for playground equipment—from jump ropes and soccer balls all the way up to new climbers and slides
  • A newsletter, website, or blog to share wellness information, recipes, and tips
  • A swap or community yard sale for gently used bicycles, ice skates, cleats, shin guards, and/or other sports and fitness gear
  • Healthy meals for teachers and staff during in-service days or parent-teacher conferences
  • A sports try-it event (similar to the musical instrument "petting zoos" held by your school's band and orchestra program)
  • A lending library of cookbooks (and even kitchen equipment, such as bread machines or slow cookers)
  • Wellness-related community service efforts, such as a shoe drive or a park clean-up
  • A soup swap so everyone can stock their freezers with tasty, nutritious meals (the healthier version of a cookie swap)

If your school or parent-teacher organization does not have a wellness committee, start one! It just takes a few creative, energetic people to get the ball rolling. "You need a champion—someone to get things started," says Lisa Hoffman, an exercise physiologist and the founder of a wellness council at her kids' elementary school in Brooklyn, New York.

Recruit a friend or two and talk to the principal to get buy-in. Ideally, your committee's members will include as many representatives from your school community as possible: administrators, teachers (including physical education teachers and sports coaches), parents, students, cafeteria staff, recess supervisors and after-school care providers. They all play a role in helping kids and families live healthfully, at home and at school.

Your school and/or school district should have a wellness policy in place (it's required for participation in federal school food programs). Reviewing this policy is a good starting point for your committee. How good is the policy? How effective is it? What could be improved?

The Bottom Line

Set goals: Do you want to share information with your school community? Do you expect to plan events? Are you trying to change policy (for example, lunch menus or guidelines about snacks in the classroom)? Do you want to raise funds or apply for grants to install bottle-filler water fountains or equip a classroom with standing desks? Once you have people and goals in place, you're ready to get started. Soon your kids and their peers will enjoy a healthier school!

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Article Sources
  • Schwartz AE, Leardo M, Aneja S, et al. Effect of a School-Based Water Intervention on Child Body Mass Index and Obesity. JAMA Pediatrics 2016;170(3):220-226.
  • Schwartz MB, Henderson KE, Read M, Danna N, Ickovics JR. New School Meal Regulations Increase Fruit Consumption and Do Not Increase Total Plate Waste. Childhood Obesity 2015;11(3): 242-247.