Perspectives Online

Stickin' with Fitness, Extension partners with schools to promote healthier weight for youth. By Natalie Hampton

Sherry Howlett (above and below) teaches Bayboro second graders how to make physical activity part of their lifestyle. She uses a brightly colored wheel to help them identify healthy foods (below).
Photos by Becky Kirkland

At the Pamlico County Primary School in Bayboro, Cooperative Extension program assistant Sherry Howlett marches around the room with a group of second graders, participating in a fitness routine called "Stickin' with Fitness." The exercise is part of a county effort to reduce youth overweight in the schools.

Cooperative Extension program assistant Sherry Howlett uses a brightly colored wheel to help Bayboro second graders identify healthy foods
Howlett's nutrition and physical activity lessons are part of a new partnership between Cooperative Extension and Pamlico County schools. The local school system is paying half the cost of Howlett's salary to get her help with this important education initiative.

"This fits in perfectly with our 'Healthy, Active Children' program," said Dr. Julia Mobley, superintendent of the Pamlico County schools. "Sherry has the expertise, and we have the need."

Howlett, a 4-H youth program assistant in the federal Expanded Foods and Nutrition Education Program, was responsible for Craven and Pamlico counties' adult "Out for Lunch" programs, an initiative of EFNEP. When funding for "Out for Lunch" ended in

October, Southeast District Director Wanda Sykes mentioned Howlett's availability to Mobley, and the partnership was sealed.

Since then, Howlett has been busy. In October, she began teaching in the high school's ninth- and tenth-grade Teen Living Program. After that, she worked with third, fourth and fifth graders at the Fred A. Anderson Elementary School. In February, she began working with first and second graders at the county's primary school. She also is working with the high school's foods and nutrition classes and is involved with after-school programs and 4-H Summer Fest.

The schools - and county government - are interested in preventing childhood obesity and related health problems, Howlett said. "Kids often make unhealthy choices when it comes to snacks and need to be involved in daily physical activity. We need more education for both kids and parents on adopting healthier lifestyles."

The school system's "Healthy, Active Children" program is designed to increase youth activity and teach healthy eating habits. In addition to preventing youth from becoming overweight, the program also helps the children's school performance, Mobley said.

"Healthy children are better learners," she said.

Though Howlett has not taught children in the past, she is a natural teacher. Using a 4-H youth EFNEP curriculum - Professor Popcorn - she has adapted the learning program for different age groups.

The six-lesson curriculum teaches nutrition and health concepts ranging from hand washing to the food pyramid to the importance of eating breakfast. Each lesson builds on the one before and includes physical activities, as well as recipes for healthy snacks. At the elementary school, Howlett had students make sugar-free candied apples in their classrooms, which was a big hit.

The classes are more than just a fun activity. The Professor Popcorn lesson objectives meet comprehensive learning goals outlined in the state's Standard Course of Study for math, science and healthy living.

Howlett hands out the "fitness sticks" and leads the students in moving to the beat of a song from the movie "Shrek 2." The fitness routine was so popular that Howlett led third graders in performing it for a recent Parent-Teacher Organization meeting.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
"The classes will encourage kids' interest in healthy eating and making physical activity part of their lifestyle," Howlett said. "But these goals must tie in with the schools' curriculum."

At the primary school, Howlett starts the lesson by asking the children if they eat fruits and vegetables every day. They name a few of those they can remember: peaches, apples, oranges, strawberries, carrots and blueberries.

She tells them about the importance of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Then the children identify fruits and vegetables they know in a variety of bright colors: orange, red, green, yellow, purple and blue.

The next activity is "Talk to the Hands," a question-and-answer game that the students named. The students stand in a circle and physical education teacher Mike Twichell bounces a ball covered with numbered hand shapes to each student. When a child catches the ball, Howlett asks him or her a nutrition question.

The children then choose fruits and vegetables from a large ring on the floor and walk their selection to the appropriate basket - one for "fruits" and one for "vegetables." As they complete the task, Howlett plants a "Five a Day" sticker on each child.

Finally, Howlett hands out the "fitness sticks" and leads the students in moving to the beat of a song from the movie "Shrek 2." The fitness routine was so popular that Howlett led third graders in performing it for a recent Parent-Teacher Organization meeting.

Pamlico County's public school system is small - only 1,700 students in kindergarten through 12th grade - making it smaller than many urban high schools. Students come to one of four schools in Bayboro - primary, elementary, middle or high school.

For this county of 13,000, keeping a watch on the budget's bottom line is important. So sending messages about healthy eating home to parents is part of the program's goal. That's the reason behind the "Five a Day" stickers and weekly take-home activity sheets Howlett gives the kids.

"We want to get parents involved," she said, "because they do the cooking and the shopping."