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Empowering Kids to Be Kids

Funston Elementary School
Chicago, Illinois

For students at Funston Elementary School, a Pre-K–8 school with 95% of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals located in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, it’s not always easy to just “be a kid.” The community has suffered from a shortage of safe outdoor play spaces, and the school grounds lacked standard playground equipment like basketball hoops and soccer goals, making it difficult for kids to play and be active.

As an AFHK partner school since 2012, Funston has made strides in improving its health environment. However, with the help of a $25,000 “BE Time” Game On Grant from Action for Healthy Kids, generously funded by Materne GoGo squeeZ, for the 2018-19 school year, Funston was able to take its efforts to the next level. BE Time is a concept championed by GoGo squeeze that centers around the idea that kids need more opportunities to simply be kids—to have unstructured time to nourish their imaginations, creativity, social skills and relationships, as well as the right nutrition to nourish their bodies. Using the grant funds, Funston’s health and wellness team worked to create a school environment that fosters BE Time and promotes an overall culture of wellness by improving three major areas of the school: the garden, the main playground space, and the student lounge/annex cafeteria.

Planting the seeds of success

Although the school had built garden beds a few years prior and was already actively engaging teachers and students in planting, harvesting, science experiments and “garden bites” activities (taste-testing the harvested vegetables), the wellness team saw an opportunity to further increase student and family involvement. To that end, it developed a produce stand where students and their parents could “shop” for harvested produce, giving students an opportunity to talk with their families about the vegetables and herbs they had grown and to try out healthy recipes they had learned in the classroom at home. As part of a service day on April 6, volunteers also painted the garden beds in Funston’s school colors to make them more aesthetically pleasing. The school is excited to see more students and their families enjoy the garden area during the 2019-2020 school year.

The power of play

The second main focus of the grant was to improve the various play areas used by students. By talking with the kids and observing them interact with the spaces, the wellness team identified several improvements that volunteers were able to tackle on the day of service: installing a basketball hoop and permanent soccer goals, purchasing new equipment, and adding new playground stencils for games like foursquare and hop scotch.

“The service day was a huge success!” said Assistant Principal Matt Glanzman. “When students returned to the school and saw the new play spaces and painted garden beds, they immediately began interacting with their peers in those areas.”

Funston also installed fresh sod in the soccer field over the summer. Thanks to the improvements, students now have dedicated, safe play areas on school grounds and don’t have to travel to other parks after school or during the summer to find a basketball hoop or soccer goals. They also have a greater variety of play spaces and activities to choose from, which the wellness team believes will encourage them to engage in physical activity during recess.  Parent Ivelisse Concepcion, who grew up attending Funston as a child, now comfortably brings her own children to the school park and play spaces in the summer regularly, along with other parents in the community.

A place for learning

The importance of a school’s physical environment in learning has been well documented, and Funston had been working hard even before receiving the grant on improving the aesthetics within the building. As part of the service day activities in April, volunteers painted murals in the student lounge and annex cafeteria that depict healthy eating, school pride, belonging, recycling and music. According to Glanzman, they’ve made “a dramatic difference to the space” and allowed students to feel a sense of ownership over their environment.

Letting kids take the reins

Beyond making changes to the school’s built environments, Funston spent a lot of time throughout the school year talking about the importance of BE Time with staff and parents.

“We felt strongly that BE Time was a concept that aligned with our priority of being a personalized learning school, and was something that we could easily incorporate into our school day in a variety of ways,” Glanzman said.

This included brain breaks, calming exercises, flexible seating, and celebrating a “BE Time Class of the Month,” among other things. Staff encouraged students to advocate for things they needed and to use recess and classroom free time to explore their imaginations and build relationships with peers.

The school used its Family Engagement Nights, as well as the Health Fair it hosted on April 23 during Every Kid Healthy Week, to educate parents on the importance of giving kids unstructured time at home. The events were self-guided with an overall goal; during Math night, for example, students were asked to participate in different activities focused on math but could go to any station they chose and had flexibility in terms of the schedule.

“We encouraged students to choose the activities that interested them most,” Glanzman said. “We purposely set up the health fair this way to reinforce the importance of BE Time with our students and their families.”

Looking ahead

With some additional grant funds remaining, Funston’s wellness team plans to make improvements to its indoor recess by identifying low-impact activities that students can do in the classroom when it’s raining, snowing, or too cold to be outside; build a “peace room” where students can calm down and discuss conflicts in order to address them in a peaceful, positive way; and improve the landscape of the annex playground space, including creating stencils that preschool and kindergarten students can use.

“We are excited to continue this work with Action for Healthy Kids,” Glanzman said. “We believe that the work we did this past year, as well as the work we are planning to do for the upcoming [2019-2020] school year, will have a dramatic impact on our students’ physical health, as well as their mental well-being.”