Your kids spend a good part of their day at school, so you want it to be the healthiest environment possible. "A campus that provides healthy snacks and lunches, opportunities for physical activity, and classrooms that are clean and well-designed are valuable for students," says Katherine Williamson, MD, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a board-certified pediatrician at Mission Hospital. "Not only do these things promote their health and well-being, but they also help create an environment conducive to learning.
Parents can be strong advocates for their children's wellness at school, and working together with teachers and administrators, they can form a team that can create real, healthy change." If you're looking for some ideas on what you can do, take a cue from the suggestions below:
1. Form a wellness committee. If you and other parents want to integrate healthy initiatives at your campus, talk to administrators about forming a committee. "The group can consult with teachers and staff on schoolwide plans for any number of topics, ranging from offering lunchtime games to get kids moving to drafting guidelines for healthy snack options for classroom holiday parties," Dr. Roberts says.
2. Switch it up and give the teacher a plant instead of an apple. There are several kinds of house plants that can purify air indoors, including English ivy, rubber trees, Boston ferns, spider plants and several varieties of small palms. Plus, many of these are easy to care for and make for cheerful classroom decor.
3. Go green to clean. Some schools are making the switch to non-toxic cleaning supplies in classrooms. "Ask your school administrators what types of cleaning products are used on campus, and lobby for more natural alternatives," Dr. Roberts says. "If your teacher includes cleaners, such as wipes, on her classroom donation request list at the start of school, bring in eco-friendly products. Students can be shown how to regularly use wipes to clean their desks to prevent the spread of germs, as well as to declutter them."
4. Plant the seeds of health with a garden. More and more schools have seen the benefits of setting up gardens where classes can grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and learn about healthy eating. "It can be as simple as finding some space for garden beds that can be built by volunteers; seeds, soil and tools can be obtained with grant money or through donations from local nurseries," Dr. Roberts says. For more information on what you need, visit the website for the federal Let's Move campaign, which promotes a healthy lifestyle for kids, both in and out of school.
5. Let's do (healthy) lunch. The days are numbered for "mystery meat" entrees and sugary desserts in school cafeterias. "The Let's Move campaign also endorses the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, which offers monetary awards to campuses that voluntarily meet high nutritional criteria," Dr. Roberts says. "If you want ideas for how your child's school can improve its lunch offerings, the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement offers some tips, such as offering more produce, serving only regular milk instead of chocolate milk and giving more prominent placement to healthy entrees on the lunch line." Check out the Healthier US Schools Challenge standards and information about the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.
6. Give kids the chance to stretch their legs. Physical activity is a necessity during the school day. "Obviously, exercise helps kids stay physically fit, but it also is a good release valve for kids who have been working in a classroom for a couple of hours--they can rest their brains, get out some pent-up energy and come back to class ready to refocus," Dr. Roberts says. "Plus, a Pediatrics study found that children who had regular physical activity improved their cognitive function, so exercise is a critical tool for learning." While some elementary schools may not have a physical education teacher on staff, parent volunteers can step up and help lead P.E. sessions at their schools. Another idea that can be helpful for mind and body: stretching breaks before tests, which can ease stress.
7. Furnish a healthy classroom. Just as offices are instituting new ideas such as standing desks, so are schools. "Stability balls have replaced chairs in some classrooms--they allow students to have movement by letting them gently bounce in place, and the kids are practicing balance and gaining core strength," Dr. Roberts says. "Some teachers have reported that students who use the balls are less likely to get up and wander around in class, which helps them focus on their work." Other ideas include ergonomically-friendly computer stations and work tables that allow kids to stand.
"As a parent, you work hard to provide a healthy home environment, and school should be an extension of that," Dr. Roberts says. "It can be an active, vibrant place of learning--a place kids look forward to going every morning, and a place where parents can rest assured their child is safe and eager to learn."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.