Introducing Healthy Activities into the Classroom: Nutrition, Relaxation and Life Skills

From the Principal's Office Updated July 1, 2015

Introducing healthy activities and behaviors to your students should not be an afterthought, but all too often teachers sacrifice these important opportunities to focus on the more pressing — and formally tested — areas of math and language arts. It’s as if teachers are, once again, caught in that trap of sacrificing what is most important for that which is most urgent.

I strongly advise teachers to strive for a balance between helping students earn good grades and encouraging them become emotionally resilient and confident learners. There are two key ways to make this happen:

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Focusing on nutrition, relaxation and life skills

nutrition in the classroom can help keep students healthy enough for learningAs the national conversation on childhood obesity widens, I suggest finding ways to introduce fruits and vegetables in your classroom and having very liberal policies on when they are consumed. It’s human nature that when you are surrounded by something edible, you tend to eat it without paying much attention. Fast-food marketers use this trick when they saturate the market with ads, kids’ meals and corporate sponsorships. You can do the same thing by bringing in healthy food for students to eat during class. You may want to begin a parent-donation opportunity where families occasionally send in apples, oranges, bananas or whatever is in season. For safety’s sake, make sure you know if your students have any food allergies or other health issues related to their diet.

Aggressively relax

OK, maybe not too aggressively, but teaching your students to take part in (or at least be exposed to) relaxation techniques can have a positive effect on their studies. If we go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we realize that people need to feel safe and secure to be able to learn. A developed view of that would encourage teachers to help children feel more safe, calm and comfortable in the classroom. This could be accomplished through teachers showing a proper attitude to the class (no yelling or intimidation) and enabling the students to feel relaxed as newer topics are introduced. Students who are stressed out or keyed up will be far less likely to remember and internalize new information if their adrenaline is running high.

Work on life skills

Adults who struggled in school often say they were “absent the day life’s instructions were handed out,” which makes them restless and discontented in many social and personal settings. I strongly suggest that teachers set some time aside for teaching students certain life skills. Examples could be solving a problem with another person in a fair and reasonable manner, being an advocate for oneself or perhaps something as simple as returning an item to a store or opening a checking account. Today’s hyperconnected society allows for a lot of contact, but very little of it happens at a depth that allows students to actually practice these interpersonal activities that will serve them later in life.

Making your classroom a model of health

One of our most important (and most overlooked) responsibilities as teachers is to model healthy habits for our students. Of course we need to have “healthy” academic and study habits, but it’s also important to take care of ourselves physically and set the same example for young people. Remember what Ted Sizer always said: “The children are watching.”

Keeping kids healthy makes them better learnersAnd aside from the personal benefit of being healthy, there is the direct correlation between the health of your students and their ability to complete their assignments. With that in mind, think about these suggestions for developing a healthy classroom:

Take a health assessment

Don’t miss a chance to discuss healthy nutrition, behavior and sleep habits with your students. You could, for instance, have them complete an age-appropriate health assessment and share the results with their parents. On that note, you can also create a “health incentive” in your class. Perhaps offer a homework-free night if the students complete a weekly food log or track their sleep patterns. One popular activity — more with the parents than students — is to have them spend less time in front of screens (TVs, smartphones and computers).

Teach and model work/life balance

In today’s hyperconnected world, teaching your students to step away from technology to spend time alone is a healthy thing to do. Studies have shown that always being “on” isn’t a good thing and that time spent away from stimulation enables the mind to rest and perhaps even wander into original thoughts. Encourage your students to do this and even consider modeling it for them. Turn your phone/computer/tablet off on a Friday night and stay unplugged till Monday morning. That might be challenging, but it can send a strong message to your students.

Take the kids outside

If your curriculum allows it, find some time to bring your classes outside to play in the sunshine. Even if it’s cold, bundle them up and get them outside for some fresh air. If your school has no fresh air and open fields, consider having a field trip to a local park for a day of outdoor games, healthy food and good fun. Our students definitely struggle from a “nature deficit” and getting them out into the open is good for them (and you!).

Do some research

My research for this post came across the work of Esther Sternberg and her research into the connection between mind-body interactions, stress and healing. Her easily accessible and readable work offers teachers excellent insight into how they can both care for themselves and their students. Look for her podcast on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio show.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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