Hitting the Target for Developing Healthy Attitudes

Naomi Lev and Juli Kramer

Students run around, rolling down a hill, climbing trees, and playing Frisbee. Smiles stretch wide on their faces; shouts and laughter fill the air. These are high school students, mind you, waiting for an outdoor museum guide. In another setting, students sweat in the hot sun as they climb, bend, lift, grasp, squat, and walk while cleaning a nature preserve.

In a final scene, students move around acting out lines from a play, stretching, reaching, orating, and smiling as costumes complete their character. All of these images have movement and physical expression in common. While some feel spontaneous, none are unintentional. Each scenario hits the bull’s-eye in a school’s specific aim to incorporate physical activity, as well as health and wellness, into students’ daily experience, a choice that has numerous positive outcomes.


Part of human nature is moving in the direction we are aiming, and the same is true for schools. Henry David Thoreau writes, “In the long run, we only hit what we aim at.” Torah itself means to “take aim,” and we are reminded each year at Yom Kippur to think about the “target towards which we aim this year.” The idea of taking aim and hitting the mark serves as a powerful guide when exploring the notion of health and wellbeing in Jewish education. We are sure to miss the mark in ensuring our students learn how to lead healthy lives if we fail to aim for and model a healthy path for our children to follow through school and beyond.


Developing a mission geared towards wellness leads to activities and structures that bring a sense of joy and happiness within the school day. Jewish day school staff face increased pressures due to having a dual curriculum. As a result, they make tough choices based on what they deem to be most important. Making students’ health a priority can strengthen student achievement and happiness while also ensuring that school administrators and teachers hit the mark of making a positive difference in a critical aspect of their students’ lives.


Why does this issue matter and why should we attend to students’ health? From a religious lens, we find an emphasis on caring for the body. Hillel contends that care of the body should be counted as one of the 613 commandments. Lessons from Midrash Vayikra Rabbah teach us that the soul is a guest in the body, denoting that care for the body equates to care for the soul. At Sukkot, the lulav and etrog symbolize parts of the body and serve as metaphors to help us grow and strengthen our personal connection to Hashem. Multiple halakhot reinforce the idea of sanctity of the human body. Maimonides believed individuals are required to care for their bodies and detailed methods on how people should live a healthy life.


From a secular perspective, our children face a crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over the past 30 years, the rate of obesity in children has more than doubled, and the rate for adolescents has more that quadrupled. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents in the United States were obese. The CDC also provides statistics on increased rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders often linked to poor diet and lack of exercise. These statistics fail to capture the personal stories of the emotional and physical pain and suffering that go along with the problems.


In the curricular dimension, what goals and objectives do we expect our students to master? Without the focus on wellness, it is easy to stick to the cerebral development of our students and mastery of essential secular and Judaic content. When a school cares about students holistically, a traditional focus falls short. When a school chooses not to teach students about how to eat a healthy diet, and why exercise is important, students learn that these things must not matter. When students’ holistic wellbeing is part of a school’s mission, overlooking and not prioritizing these topics is problematic, and the outcome is to search for a solution. Simply learning the information theoretically also falls short, however, which leads to the importance of pedagogy.


Pedagogical choices are a critical way in which educators can make a difference. When health and wellness are not a priority, one might look at a classroom and see children sitting in their desks all day, with five minute breaks in between, as acceptable. A lack of movement, quiet order and control seem normal and even beneficial. Elementary classrooms will often evidence more movement, because such a choice is deemed developmentally appropriate.


However, once physical wellbeing enters the equation, these choices raise concerns. Current research shows that people need to move at least every half hour to increase blood flow and prevent muscle and eye strain, yet our students often sit in the same position for an hour or more. In addition to the physical concerns, how often have we seen students falling asleep or demonstrating other evidence of boredom? Adding the lens of fitness and health gives us pause and helps us ask the question, Is there a better way for students to master the material that gets them moving and more active? Easy strategies can be something as simple as having the students move around and get into groups or work with a partner.


Complex approaches can motivate educators to think more creatively about pedagogical methods. For example, teachers could have students create movements and a cheer to memorize terms for their AP language, science, or history class. Kinesthetic learners who often fail to connect to material that is most often presented in visual or auditory ways can excel through this pedagogical choice. All students will get to laugh and have fun in the process. And the evidence indicates that the retention of information is more meaningful and long-term.


Using manipulatives that afford the opportunity for students to get out of their seats and spread out on the floor to work is another pedagogical choice that can help students feel happier and learn more in school. Could a psychology teacher have students learn about the process of learning by teaching each other different skills versus just lecturing? Students could teach such things as how to shoot a basket or a particular dance, and talk about the different psychological concepts throughout the process. Could a Halakhah teacher have students get up and model kashrut principles they are learning in a hands-on way? Taking into account Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, students who are bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal and naturalist almost never experience modes of instruction that meet their needs or allow them to shine. Aiming for movement and care for students’ physical wellness leads to ideas that might otherwise be missed that can help diverse students thrive.


One dimension of education that invites creative opportunities to enhance health is the structural dimension, which includes how school staff develops and uses physical and financial resources and time. Envision children setting up regular banquet tables with a net they bring from home in order to have ping pong tournaments during lunch, instead of simply sitting around. The choice to encourage students’ creativity and need for doing something active finds greater support when schools aim for fitness. Space and time come together in this scenario, as they do when the classroom furniture invites teachers to easily move around tables and desks to play a game on the floor, spread out for a team-building activity, and so on.


Do administrators create an open space for gathering and moving around, such as a student lounge? Class time is precious, and when movement and learning merge together, schools can accomplish more. The use of space also extends beyond the school walls. Do teachers and administrators look at the physical spaces around their schools that invite physical activity that can support learning? Is there a park or other places within walking distance that teachers can incorporate into their lessons, whether historical simulations, naturalistic observation, or drawing inspiration from the setting to write poetry?


How school staff allocates time speaks volumes to students. One high school had scheduled PE as independent study at home on students’ own time. The quality and strength of the program varied from student to student. More importantly, the school communicated that students’ physical wellbeing was not important enough to make time for it in the schedule. The school worked hard to realign with their mission and made time for two hours of PE a week, which helped build a culture of fitness, play and community. When administrators adjusted the schedule during final exam review week, students advocated for PE time, saying it helped them reduce anxiety and have fun in this otherwise stressful time. One student went so far as to make his parent drive him back to school from a doctor’s appointment with only one class left in the day, PE.


Some schools have been able to restructure their use of time to allow for trips that focus on getting active as a priority, including walking, hiking, snowshoeing, sledding and even rock climbing in the itinerary. Because these schools aim for health and building lifelong habits of being active, they provide time and resources accordingly and communicate, explicitly and implicitly, that health matters as much as all of the rest that schools teach. The trips cost money, but the aim justifies this use of financial resources.


Affording space, time and money for athletic teams at the middle and high school levels can help reach fitness goals as well. Oftentimes students at larger schools are precluded from participation due to the competitive nature of the teams, and how schools manage this reality can reflect their commitment to all students’ health. Do they fund junior varsity teams? Do they provide training and club opportunities that help students get active if they do not make the higher level teams? What about scheduling sport conditioning, where students interested in getting fit, but not excited about competition, can train side-by-side with athletes? Again, the allocation of resources speaks volumes to students. All of these options require creative use of financial, time and personnel resources, and perhaps actively seeking out funding from donors who value physical health.


When a school’s mission aims for healthy youth development, school staff is more likely to hit the target, overcoming barriers along the way. They can assess their curricular and pedagogical choices, as well as audit how they use space, time and financial resources with student health in mind. They shine the light on practices that best support or those that can hinder achievement of their goal. The choice to do so can change student lives.


Soft puffs of steam escape the students’ lips as they hike across a vast field of yellow grass matted down from an earlier snow. Some race ahead with the guide, others linger, taking photos of shriveled flowers and frost covered leaves. Everyone speeds up when the guide produces a skull with horns from a bison that had died. “I’ve never hiked before,” one of the students shares with a teacher as they walk. “Never?” the teacher asks. “No. My family doesn’t do this kind of thing. I can’t believe I love it so much. Thank you for taking us,” she says with a smile. 

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015