Last week I volunteered at an elementary school in Far Rockaway where I assisted in teaching young children healthy eating habits. For those unfamiliar with NYC, Far Rockaway is one of the poorest neighborhoods within Brooklyn. More often than naught, these impoverished neighborhoods are also fraught with malnutrition and ironically obesity. At this particular school 85% of the students qualify for free lunch. In some cases, these meals are their main source of nutrition and unfortunately, the food the receive is often highly processed and unhealthy. When the students do bring in their own food it tends to be things like fritos or pastries such as cream filled HoHos, because access to nutrient rich food is still a matter of class. This is what their parents can afford and thus, what children are being taught to eat through daily reinforcement. In response to this epidemic, the activity’s team leaders created an after school program teaching children about nutrition.
As a volunteer and first time participant in the activity, I contented myself with sitting back and following the directions of my team leaders. The activity began with a brief introduction along with question and answer session. Today we are going to make healthy butterflies using bananas, apples, pretzels, and raisins. What do we know about bananas? They’re yellow! Monkeys eat them, another student added.
While the team leader led the info session, I was instructed to hand out plates and fruit. Before waiting for directions, the children immediately started playing. Any teacher will tell you, this is a rookie mistake; you never hand things out until you give all the directions because children WILL TOUCH EVERYTHING YOU GIVE THEM, call it an impulse. Even so, it wasn’t my activity. I didn’t want to step on toes; so instead, I gently told the students to wait since the leaders had to tell us how we were going to make the butterfly. However, by the time I turned around several students had already pierced the banana, creating not fruit butterflies, but fruit insects.
Seeing the wide array of insects the children had created, I couldn’t help but think of Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk, How schools kill creativity, whereupon I realized perhaps giving clear instructions isn’t always a good thing. Maybe, what students need are more opportunities to play. Consequently, what could have been potentially a huge misfire, was in actually a great discovery, at least for me.
By letting the students explore the fruit, they were able to make a more personal and therefore meaningful connection with the activity. They weren’t mindlessly following instructions, they were experimenting and creating.
Nevertheless, in speaking with the children, I found that major gaps in information still existed. They had no idea that a raisin was a dried grape, or where grapes came from. When asked they all responded, unsure of themselves, a tree?
After the students had eaten their masterpieces, I was instructed to cut more apples which is when I realized how math and even earth science could be incorporated into these activities, making them interdisciplinary. With a little planning and ingenuity, there are many ways to incorporate nutrition in an already existing curriculum.
In short, less directions, more discussion.
Interested in volunteering in after school nutrition programs? Check out newyorkcares.org
Know any other interesting food activities for young children? Tweet me.