What Teens Wish Teachers Knew About Creating Healthy School Environments
In an assignment called the Blue Zones project, my sixth graders are currently researching the five areas of the world where people live the longest, and brainstorming ways to create a similarly healthy, happy environment within our school community.
Some of the suggestions in their journals are a little far-fetched—“build lots of hills, buy some sheep, and teach us all to be shepherds”—but most are realistic and can be easily implemented. Here’s what the kids came up with, and what I learned from their journal entries.
1. Stop selling Gatorade, and offer more healthy snacks.
No donuts, less sugary drinks, more fresh veggies. I advocate for these nutrition-positive changes enough to drive my students crazy, but when they discovered a lack of processed foods as a common component of the Blue Zone lifestyle, the message took on a lot more weight.
They also realized that, although the Blue Zones are located in very different parts of the world, they share a similar plant-based diet that focuses on eating and preparing real food.
For more on getting kids to speak up for healthier food choices at school, check out the resources at “Inspiring Kids to Advocate for Healthier School Lunches.”
2. Make recess longer so that we have more time to play outside.
Blue Zone researcher and author Dan Buettner explains that people in the Blue Zones don’t need to “get exercise,” because physical activity is naturally built into their day. He says that if they do “work out,” it’s by doing something that they genuinely enjoy.
This really resonated with my students. PE might not be as fun for teens as it was in elementary school, and not everyone loves running the timed mile. What they do love, however, is playing outside with their friends.
A few years ago, our school installed an awesome playground that’s custom-built for adolescents. But maybe we’re not giving them enough time to use it.
In addition to being a stress reliever, unstructured playtime is essential to learning and development. For more on the power of play in education, check out this series from NPR Edu.
3. Build in more time for socializing.
Another common Blue Zones thread is a strong sense of community. The kids appreciated the idea, and wanted to figure out ways to foster that feeling in our school.
One of them pointed out that our school’s new focus on social-emotional learning has community-building potential. The school-wide initiative has all of our teachers incorporating lessons on goal setting, resilience, cooperation, and other social-emotional skills into our advisory program. It gives the students a chance to learn while working together with their “home base” class. Our focus on project-based learning also helps, since collaboration is key.
For ideas on how to incorporate social-emotional learning in your school, check out these evidence-based programs from Edutopia.
4. Plant a school garden.
Upon recognizing growing your own food as a recurring theme throughout each of the Blue Zones, my kids began to wonder, “Why don’t we have a big school garden?”
Our elementary school has one, but space issues seem to have done away with the one that the middle school once had. And since our cafeteria offers plenty of locally grown fruits and vegetables, I suppose the gardening endeavor got pushed aside.
But as my students pointed out, growing a garden is less about the fruits and veggies and more about the act of gardening itself. It’s a physical activity that provides the mental health benefits of being in nature. It can also serve as a way of bringing a community together, and kids are more likely to try new veggies when they’ve had a hand in helping them grow. (Guess I know what our next project is going to be!)
For tips on starting your own school garden, check out the resource bank from The Edible Schoolyard.
I was impressed and pleased by how well my class was able to apply their newly acquired Blue Zones knowledge to their own daily lives. We can tell our students and children all about making healthy choices, but it’s so much more effective when they discover the benefits themselves.