Recreation Fights Diabetes
Wise Kids Program in Corpus Christi, Texas
Corpus Christi, Texas, is a sunny, bustling city of nearly 400,000 people located on the Gulf of Mexico in the coastal bend. Known for its pristine beaches, exceptional sailing and world-class aquarium, Corpus Christi also has one distinction that it would like to change: The area's incidence of diabetes is nearly double the U.S. norm.
One organization that has been working hard to reduce that figure is the Corpus Christi Department of Parks & Recreation. In early 2007 Assistant Director Stacie Talbert attended the National Recreation and Park Association's (NRPA) Health & Livability Summit and heard a presentation by Melissa Hanson, president of the Säjai Foundation. Talbert was intrigued by the foundation's Wise Kids program, which strives to improve the health of children by reaching them in after-school settings with fun, compelling messages about energy balance: Calories in (eating) should equal calories out (activity).
Believing that this simple concept would resonate with children in her after-school programs, Talbert applied for a grant through the Coastal Bend Diabetes Initiative.
That grant was awarded in August 2008, allowing Wise Kids to be integrated into two elementary school latchkey sites and three recreation centers in the fall semester. More than 125 children participated in those programs, and Talbert hoped that what they learned would have a lasting impact on how they viewed food, nutrition and physical activity.
"Our mission is to have children be as healthy as they can be in terms of their nutrition and their activity patterns," Talbert said. "The high diabetes rates here in Corpus Christi are clear signs that we need to change, and I believe that Wise Kids can help us initiate that change with children before they get too ingrained in unhealthy lifestyles. Wise Kids appealed to us because it was a turnkey program that both our program leaders and kids would embrace."
Calories In=Calories Out
Created by nutritionists, exercise physiologists and foundation staff specifically for after-school and out-of-school programming like that in Corpus Christi, Wise Kids partnered with the NRPA in 2006 to mobilize park and recreation agencies across the nation in addressing the problem of child obesity. The engaging nine-week program has now been implemented in more than 32 states across the country, giving children the knowledge they need to make wise decisions about nutrition and exercise. Wise Kids does not focus on fitness, dieting or weight loss, but simply on making choices that will get kids healthy and keep them healthy for a lifetime. The program is sold as a turnkey kit consisting of workbooks, games and activities that are used to teach children ages 6 to 11 about the Energy Balance Equation. It also includes training manuals, a training CD designed to teach program leaders the basics of the energy balance curriculum and a marketing CD which includes family letters to help share the kids' learning with their families at home.
Each one-hour segment of the program follows a Learn-Do-Play format that both educates kids and gets them moving. Illustrated workbooks are provided to each child to guide self-directed activity and increase understanding, and program leaders are supplied with all the materials they need to make it an engaging learning experience. It was the completeness of the program that most appealed to Talbert.
"What appealed to us about Wise Kids, apart from its messaging, was that it gave us a turnkey kit with all the tools we would need to run the program, but it was also flexible enough to allow each individual leader to bring their own flair and perspective to it," Talbert said. "This is very important in an after-school program where you might only have the kids for an hour and a half and you need to be very organized and engaging."
Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation used its Web site and news releases to publicize the program, but it had to be selective for the first implementation, which could take place in only five of the 40 sites that host nearly 2,100 children in after-school programs.
To initiate the Corpus Christi program, Hanson met with all of the agency's program leaders to present the key elements of the program. According to Margaret Morin, program manager for the after-school program, it was clear after this training that the spark of creativity was there for the program leaders.
Reaching the Entire Family
"The twist that it brought in terms of being able to show the kids how the food they put in their body impacts them and their ability to play was really interesting to the staff," Morin said. "In addition, this training segment showed them how Wise Kids would make their jobs pretty easy with the colorful workbooks and posters, the pedometers and a calendar of activities."
When the program was rolled out in September, the children and even the parents embraced the enthusiasm of the leaders.
"The staff at our Houston Elementary site really embraced the program, and they figured out ways to involve the parents or guardians through weekly celebrations and an opportunity at the end of the program for parents to bring in healthy snacks and play together with their children," Talbert said. "They kind of lived the 'energy in, energy out' philosophy for the day and it was really exciting."
Best of all, according to Morin the kids at all of the sites took the lessons home with them. "The kids were completely engaged in the program, and this filtered back to their parents. They were coming in and asking our site supervisors, 'What are you teaching my child? We went to the grocery store yesterday and they told me that we couldn't buy the junk food anymore,'" Morin said. "They were very pleased that we were helping to change their children's eating habits, something that parents are always trying to do. Even on days when the program wasn't being conducted, the children would still want to wear their pedometers."
Best of all, Corpus Christi had some strong evaluation data to back up the anecdotal success. Post-program testing at the Joe Garza Recreation Center revealed that the percentage of kids who believe that doing physically active things like riding bikes and playing with friends was important rose 44 points, from 52 percent at the beginning of the program to 96 percent at the end. Moreover, there was a 20-point increase in the percentage of children eating breakfast, choosing healthy snacks and enjoying fruits and vegetables. In addition, at the nearby Calk Center the number of children who said that they choose to be physically active because it is fun rose from 59 percent to 81 percent.
Wise Kids wrapped up at the first five sites in early December 2008, and soon thereafter Talbert and Morin decided to extend it to five more sites in the spring semester. Following that, they hope to obtain another grant to bring new Säjai Foundation programming, Wise Kids Outdoors, to their summer program.
The Wise Kids Outdoors program leads children through 20 supervised outdoor adventures to learn about animals, the weather, the Earth and more. In addition, it connects nature to health, so that kids learn the importance of a balanced life that includes being active outdoors and eating well.
"When people examine the problem of childhood obesity, they focus on the related issues of physical inactivity and nutrition," Hanson said. "They say, 'Why don't kids today get off the couch and play the way we used to in the outdoors?' The problem is that many of these kids have never had someone introduce them to the outdoors, so they have little appreciation for the beauty and appeal of the natural world. We believe Wise Kids Outdoors can be the spark that gets kids off the couch and into the outdoors under the safe supervision of youth program leaders. It shows them that experiencing nature can be much more fun, healthy and rewarding than another afternoon of watching television or playing video games."
Having initiated a dialogue with their kids about their health and wellness, Talbert is reluctant to step back. "We believe that Wise Kids can teach children a new way of looking at their health, and put them in control of their eating habits and activity patterns. These are skills that they will hopefully keep for life."