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Taking Steps to Improve Student Health

St. Helen Catholic School
Newbury, Ohio

With only 20 minutes of the school day set aside for recess and physical activity, St. Helen Catholic School in Newbury, Ohio is always looking for creative ways to get its students moving more. With the help of a $1,000 Game On grant from Action for Healthy Kids, the Pre-K–8 school made great strides doing just that during the 2018-2019 school year—both figuratively and literally.

Aware that adding physical activity breaks to an already tightly scheduled school day can be overwhelming for educators, St. Helen introduced pedometer-based brain breaks and “instant recess” activities that classroom teachers could incorporate into their math, spelling, social studies, and health lessons, increasing kids’ physical activity minutes without sacrificing learning time. Additional pedometer-based activities partner kids up in order to provide lessons in peer support and encouragement, as well as offer opportunities for healthy competition. Teachers can customize the daily activities with ancillary items like beanbags, aerobic risers, and record logs to mix things up and keep kids motivated.

While the structured physical activity breaks are scheduled for twice a day on the three days a week that students don’t have PE class, St. Helen has found other creative ways to increase students’ steps and movement. Children are challenged to track their steps each day, with some teachers encouraging them to walk laps in the classroom when assignments are complete. Each month, the program has a specific goal; in February, for example, the computer teacher incorporated step data in graphing lessons for students.

Third-grade teacher Nicole Reichard said that since the program has been implemented, she has noticed her students asking for even more opportunities to exercise.

“They are taking an active role in their health and starting habits that will last a lifetime,” she said.

In addition to moving more, students are now eating better as well. The school used a portion of the grant funds to install an aeroponic tower garden in the center of the school that utilizes a vertical structure and high output fluorescent or LED lights to enable indoor growing. (It’s environmentally friendly as well, using less than 10% of the water needed for a traditional garden by recycling nutrients and water.) Students of all grades are encouraged to join and participate in the Young Gardeners Club, which meets twice a week, to learn about new growing practices, plant maintenance, and the harvesting of fruits, vegetables and herbs. During the spring months, gardening is expanded to the outdoors, giving students the opportunity to compare and contrast the different growing models. To support the gardens, members of the Young Gardeners Club use fresh berries and herbs they have harvested to create different water infusions each month that their peers can purchase at a small cost. As a result, staff report a noticeable increase in the amount of water students consume each day.

St. Helen’s commitment to improving its physical activity and nutrition initiatives is well supported by the school community; TheWholeU, a parent-led volunteer group, for example, supports the Young Gardeners Club and holds fundraisers throughout the year to help sustain its efforts. And the positive changes don’t stop when the school bell rings; Carrie Neill, a mother and volunteer with the Young Gardeners Club, said she sees her own children increasingly practicing healthy habits and making healthy choices at home.

“They are frequently sharing the healthy messages they are learning through TheWholeU,” she said. “They are so excited about tracking their steps that they have asked for Fitbits for Christmas gifts. They are drinking more water and trying new fruits and veggie mixes. They are talking about classmates that enjoy eating veggies for their snack in school.”

Staff members are similarly excited and motivated by the changes they’ve seen in their students. With the support from Action for Healthy Kids, St. Helen is moving full steam ahead into helping kids become the healthiest versions of themselves!

The grant was made possible by funding from CSX Transportation.