“With approximately one in four preschool age children being overweight or obese,” says Paul Wright, an NIU professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Physical Education, “the promotion of physical activity and outdoor play has gained national attention.”
For the last four years, Wright has been part of a $12 million federal grant program funded by the Office of Head Start. The program, Head Start Body Start (HSBS), promotes physical activity and outdoor play at Head Start programs across the country.
With the $5,000 play space improvement grants HSBS has provided to more than 1,500 Head Start centers nationwide, new equipment has been purchased, natural elements installed, and outdated or unsafe equipment such as rusty slides, broken swings and crumbling sandboxes have been replaced.
Other improvements have included the installation of benches and shaded areas to escape the burning sun, gardens, bells and rain collectors, scooters, wagons and tricycle paths.
In turn, children wanted to use the new equipment and improved play spaces. While doing so, they were able to explore movement and socialize with their peers.
“While they make friends on the playground, the kids are learning valuable skills they don’t even realize like cooperation, teamwork and problem-solving,” Wright said. “These skills exercise their minds and get them ready for school.”
In addition to the outdoor play, HSBS provides resources and consulting to Head Start teachers so they can integrate developmentally appropriate physical activity into the classroom and daily routines.
Wright is a Fulbright Scholar and an internationally recognized expert on physical activity for children. His role in the HSBS program is to assess the implementation and outcomes of the program, especially with regard to the HSBS goal of increasing physical activity.
Additional topics such as the impact on behavior and learning readiness are also being examined this year.
“We’re exploring the connection between physical activity levels and school readiness outcomes such as self-control and the ability to stay on task,” Wright said. “The program has been well received by parents, Head Start administrators, and teachers. So far, data indicates that the program results in increased amounts of moderate to vigorous physical activity in the classroom and outdoors.”
Hopefully, this will lay the foundation for a more physically activity lifestyle, which is known to be a key strategy to obesity prevention.
The grant program started in 2008 and will continue until the end of this year. When it is completed, more than 28,000 children will have benefitted from the outdoor improvements. The HSBS program is also under the direction of the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
Wright joined the NIU College of Education and KNPE team in the fall of 2011. He enjoys working in the university environment and explains, “One of the reasons this job is a great fit for me is my passion for doing research on programs that directly impact people’s lives.”
by Sarah Frazer