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Freedom to Make Healthy Choices

P.S. 18 John Peter Zenger
Bronx, New York

New York City’s P.S. 18 John Peter Zenger Elementary School had made great strides in health and wellness since forming as a community school in 2012—creating a school-based health center, introducing fun and interesting STEAM-based nutrition programs, and increasing opportunities for students to engage in after-school sports—but a $25,000 “BE Time” Transformational Grant from Action for Healthy Kids and funded by GoGo squeeZ, allowed the school to create a school wellness council and make changes that will have a lasting impact well beyond the 2018-2019 school year.

The grant centered around the idea of BE Time, a concept championed by GoGo squeeZ that celebrates the quality unstructured time kids need to play, explore their imaginations, and just be kids. P.S. 18’s newly formed wellness council embraced the concept, adjusting the schedule for 3rd grade students to include an additional period of “free choice time” during the school week. The team assigned staff members to supervise different activities in designated activity areas, then created a schedule of where each class would go for the period: the gym for physical activity, the cafeteria for nutrition education and cooking, and the auditorium for GoNoodle brain breaks.

In keeping with BE Time’s spirit of fun, creativity and imagination, the activities offered during the free choice period went beyond run-of-the-mill gym games and classroom instruction. Students designed their own obstacle courses, for example, challenging themselves both mentally and physically. And during Every Kid Healthy Week in April, wellness council members organized the Wellness Olympics, inviting students to compete in games that incorporated physical activity, nutrition trivia, and team building.

P.S. 18 also partnered with New York Common Pantry, one of New York City’s largest single-site community-based food pantries, to offer hands-on cooking and nutrition lessons with staff volunteers. Because the grant funding allowed the school to expand its garden, the volunteers were able to conduct many of the lessons right in the outdoor garden.

“The garden is something new for the students to do,” said Esmeralda Paris, intern for Public Allies and United Community Schools, who works with the school. “They are able to learn about where food comes from, what natural foods look and taste like, and how to cook with those foods by engaging in hands-on activities. In the end, the students gain the knowledge and power to make their own decisions when it comes to healthy eating.”

In the future, the wellness team hopes to incorporate the vegetables and herbs that students grow in the garden into nutrition education lessons, cooking demonstrations, lunchtime meals, and the school’s fresh-fruit-and-vegetable share program.

Mia Martinez, Community School Director and the grant champion, said the results of the grant activities were overwhelmingly positive. The wellness team observed increased student enthusiasm and willingness to engage in physical activity and free time and to eat healthy foods, increased participation in school nutrition initiatives, and much more. They saw the most student growth and independence through participation in the cooking workshops.

The new weekly BE Time period was such a success that the team plans to expand the 3rd grade pilot to all grade levels in the future, with additional activity offerings that incorporate student feedback. The team also plans to further educate teachers and parents on the importance of giving kids the quality time they need to nourish their imaginations, creativity, bodies and relationships.

Isa Del Signore Dresser, community outreach analyst for the Center for Health Equity’s Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Centers, believes the grant award has been a great incentive for the school to prioritize BE Time throughout the school day.

“Typically, wellness grants that we see schools receive are for a much smaller amount of money, but with much bigger asks that are difficult to attain,” she said. “This award has allowed the school to place a priority on creating a wellness council and make big changes. It is nice to see such a big amount of support that has really helped the school be able to come together and implement BE Time.”