Eat, Play, Learn: Y is for YAY!

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

Y is for YAY! 

I admit that I was struggling with what to use for Y – and then my latest blog for the Huffington Post was published today on the Parents page: 6 Secrets Every Parent (and School) Should Know About Academic Success, by Dayle Hayes, MS, RD. Hope you will take time to read it online – or below!

You would do anything to insure your children’s academic success, right? Helping with homework, meeting with teachers, arranging for tutors — whatever it takes to give them that little extra boost. You also care about your kids’ health — and want them to eat right and get enough physical activity to stay healthy.

What you may not know is how closely connected academic success is to what kids eat and how active they are. Experts in both education and health are beginning to realize that more attention to children’s bodies will also help their brains work better. Whether you call it the Learning Connection or the Wellness Impact, the message to parents and schools is clear: Eating smarter and moving more are essential for optimal performance and behavior in the classroom. Here are six ways you and your school district can work together to help all students succeed.

1. Start with Breakfast, Every Day

We all know that mornings can be crazy busy and some kids just aren’t hungry before school. But, this is a no brainer — literally! Without fuel for morning classes, students cannot focus, concentrate and learn. At home or school (or even in a car or bus), breakfast changes everything. Any breakfast is better than no breakfast and a bowl of whole grain cereal with milk and fruit can actually be a good source of key nutrients. Even if your kids eat at home in the morning, your support for school breakfast is critical for those children who need it. One kid who is too hungry to learn can disrupt an entire classroom. On the other hand, breakfast in the classroom, like this one in Reynoldsburg (OH), helps students fuel up for learning.


2. Safe Routes to School

Some of the hottest research on activity and brain function comes out of Dr. Charles Hillman’s lab at the University of Illinois. Brain imaging and other tests show that a simple 20-minute walk can improve a student’s performance in both reading and math. Takeaway for caring parents? Walking (or biking) to school means your kids arrive with brains that are ready to learn. Concerned about their safety? Get your workout by walking or biking with them — or get involved in a Safe Routes to School group. For example, our community is having a Walk-Bike Summit in March.

3. Active Recess Before Lunch

Physical activity at recess is good for kids brains (and their bodies) for the exactly the same reasons as walking or biking to school. However, recess before lunch has been shown to have some other very important benefits. When children are active before coming to the cafeteria, they eat better and behave better. Studies show that they actually eat more entrée, vegetables and fruits — and drink more milk. When kids rush through lunch so they can run out to play, lots of food goes into the garbage can and students are short-changed on afternoon fuel. Breakfast helps children learn in the morning, but lunch is just as necessary for afternoon classes.

4. Comfortable Cafeterias

As just noted, there is a critical academic reason to be concerned about those half-eaten lunches that your children bring home — and the full garbage cans in some school cafeterias. Sadly, many cafeterias are not pleasant, positive places to enjoy a meal. The good news is that they can be. All they need is a bit of bright décor and adults who are trained to encourage appropriate conversations rather than just patrolling between the tables and telling everyone to hurry up and eat. Parents can help create Comfortable Cafeterias by eating with their children and making positive, pleasant mealtimes part of a local wellness policy.

5. Classroom Energizers

Remember that brain research about the benefits of a 20-minute walk? Short bouts of aerobic activity in the classroom can also work wonders. A short activity break re-energizers young brains and their bodies too. Research shows that a brain break can be especially valuable when transitioning from one topic to another. Free online programs like Jammin’ Minute and Move to Learn can bring fun videos and activity tips into any classroom. Check with your children’s teachers to see if they are taking advantage of this effective and educational technique. Teachers are finding that the few minutes spent on activity actually add minutes of instructional time and putting a smarter student in the chair.

6. Smart After-School Snacks

Since children are all-day learners, they need regular refueling throughout the day, including after-school snacks — for sports, homework and academic enrichment programs. Many snack foods (candy, chips, soft drinks, etc.) do not offer the lasting power that kids need. USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools regulations are coming to school-day sales this fall — and it is important that students have access to the same nutrient-rich foods after the school day ends. Fruits and veggies are always good, but protein power is even more important. Yogurt, string cheese, nuts, nut butters, sliced deli meats, beef jerky, hard cooked eggs and hummus can all be incorporated into at home or on-the-go smart snack routines. Programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 can engage students as leaders, like these middle schoolers in Naches (WA), in making changes in what their school offers for meals, snacks and physical activity.

Next time you review a report card or discuss your child’s performance at school, be sure that nutrition and fitness are part of the conversation. Using the Learning Connection to your advantage can make a significant impact on their school success.

School Success: What’s HEALTH got to do with it?

While news about childhood obesity often makes the headlines, three other interrelated — and equally critical issues — are often not as familiar. While you may not have heard as much about student under-nutrition, food insecurity and inactivity, a growing body of research suggests that these issues can have a significant — and negative — impact on the children and adolescents in schools. It is critical to understand how addressing these physical health issues, identified as the foundation for learning in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, can help to support classroom performance and academic success in any district.
Physical Health = Foundation for Learning

As a few statistics will show, there are compelling reasons to address the physical health needs of America’s children today. In terms of nutrition, the overwhelming majority of children in the U.S. (98 percent) do not consume adequate servings from all food groups, missing nutrient-rich foods essential for growth and development. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, four nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber) are of “public health concern,” meaning these nutrient gaps are so big they affect children’s health today and in the future.

The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) also notes that there is a crisis of physical inactivity among our nation’s youth. The PHA September 2012 Policy Snapshot reports that only 42 percent of children ages six to 11 and 29 percent of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.

Nearly 17 million American children live in food insecure homes, not always certain when or where they will have their next meal. Recent surveys suggest that as many as half of school children skip breakfast regularly. There is also growing awareness among policy makers that food insecurity and the high rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. may be interrelated problems. The fact that children can be both overweight and food insecure is counter intuitive – and the reasons are both complex and not completely understood.


We do know that food insecurity affects students’ health, development, behavior and school performance. Food insecure students tend to have lower math scores, difficulty concentrating, more fatigue and are more likely to repeat a grade level. Children and teens struggling with food security are also more likely to experience difficulty getting along with others, irritability and school suspensions.
Wellness Impact Report

                        Wellness Impact Report

We also know that improving children’s eating habits and physical activity levels leads to health benefits. While multiple factors influence a child’s ability to learn in school, researchers and educators now recognize that skipping breakfast and a sedentary lifestyle may also affect a student’s cognition and achievement. GENYOUth’s Wellnes Impact Report explores the connections between nutrition, physical activity and academic achievement. Here is what they talked about and how it can make a difference in your district.


Mothers across the country have recognized the importance of breakfast for decades — and researchers have now confirmed both the health and cognitive benefits of eating well in the morning. Breakfast helps to combat childhood obesity, encourages healthy eating, and gets kids ready to learn. Unfortunately, for many families, breakfast gets squeezed out by the morning hustle and bustle — or, sadly, by the lack of food in the house. When students come to school hungry for whatever reason, they are listening to their stomachs rather than their teachers. They may have trouble concentrating on work in the classroom and often end up in the nurse’s office complaining of stomach pains and headaches. Research has shown that school breakfast programs can help prevent these problems and that they can help improve math grades, reduce school absences and rates of tardiness, and decrease emotional/behavioral problems.

Breakfast Changes Lives

                                           Breakfast Changes Lives

Expanding programs can bring all the benefits of breakfast to your schools. Flexible breakfast service — like Grab-n-Go and Breakfast in the Classroom — can help increase participation without losing valuable instructional time. Your local dairy council can work directly with your school to help implement the right breakfast program for your district. Fuel Up To Play 60 and other grants are available to help implement school breakfast programs and dairy council staff members are eager to help your district take full advantage of valuable funding, implementation and promotion resources.


The Wellness Impact Report also documents the positive relationships between physical activity at school and several indicators of academic achievement, classroom behavior and cognitive function. According to researchers, the normally sedentary school day can be activated in multiple effective ways, including physical education, active recess, walking or biking to/from school, and before/after school programs like walking clubs, as well as physically active classroom lessons and energizing breaks.

Activity in Schools

                                                         Activity in Schools

Your district’s physical education (PE) professionals are your best resource for all the ways to increase activity in and out of the classroom. If you want to see some excellent examples of classroom energizers for elementary and middle school students, Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina were developed as part of the North Carolina State Board of Education’s Healthy Active Children Policy.


While everyone has a role to play in creating healthier, smarter school environments, student empowerment is a critical component for success. According to the Learning Connection Summit leaders, one of the key principles of game-changing improvements in school nutrition and physical activity is to focus on youth leadership for maximum impact. That is the goal of Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP60), developed by the NDC and NFL, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. FUTP60 now engages over 11 million students in 73,000 schools. A recent survey of adults involved in those schools indicated that 70 percent believe the program is helping youth make healthier food choices and 62 percent say it is helping increase the amount of time students being physically active at school.

And, THAT is what it’s all about: Creating healthier school environments to create healthier students who are fit, healthy and ready to learn! Sincere thanks to Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, Inc. (SUDIA) for their support of the original draft of this article, published in the SEEN Magazine of the Southeast Education Network