Healthy Schools

Eat Your Radio offers kid’s-eye view

Armed with microphones and recording equipment, four fifth-grade reporters deployed themselves throughout teacher Andy Zwick’s classroom at Denver’s Ashley Elementary School on a recent Friday, determined to ferret out the overall opinion of the class.

Denver's Ashley Elementary fifth-grade reporter Fabri Esipa interviews classmate Maria Gonzales about the day's nutrition lesson.

“What do YOU think it is?” they asked, casting glances at the bowls full of something white at the front of the class, and recording the responses.

“Butter?” some suggested. “Whipped cream?” others thought.

But their guesses carried little confidence, since Zwick had warned them not to eat any of it, no matter how good it looked.

It was actually hydrogenated oil, also known as Crisco, and before the hour was up, they would divide into teams of three to four and do some hands-on scooping and measuring work to determine just how much of the stuff really is in a serving of their favorite snack chips versus, say, a turkey sandwich.

Through it all, the reporters would go from team to team describing what each group was doing and recording their classmates’ thoughts and observations.

Program combines nutrition and hands-on journalism for kids

The food part of the lesson is courtesy of the Integrated Nutrition Education Program, a curriculum funded through a federal grant to targeted low-income communities.

KGNU producer Shelley Schlender teaches students how to use audio and video equipment to create radio and online segments.

The journalism part of the lesson is thanks to “Eat Your Radio,” an award-winning project of KGNU, a non-commercial Colorado radio station, now in its third year of documenting the challenges kids face around issues of nutrition and obesity.

“I got involved because children’s nutrition matters to me,” said Shelley Schlender, the KGNU producer who will spend several hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks with the Ashley students this semester, coaching them on how to use the audio and video equipment, how to interview classmates and how to frame the results.

She’ll also take some of the best of what the kids come up with and edit it to create reports to air on KGNU, and nutrition-related messages that the principal will play over the intercom every morning.

Schlender is one of two producers working with Eat Your Radio. The other, Ellen Mahoney, is assigned to Denver’s Swansea Elementary this spring. They’ve also worked with students at Columbine Elementary and Casey and Centennial middle schools in Boulder, and Maxwell Elementary and Centennial K-8 in Denver.

“This has been a beat I’ve covered for years, and I’ve seen enough data to convince me that when kids are healthy, they do better in school,” said Schlender, who has worked for a number of publications and broadcast outlets.

“I’m a journalist. It’s a different role from being a teacher, and different from doing PR for a program. My job is to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening, and to look for the prickly things.”

Eat Your Radio archive ranges from Chicken Salad (W)rap to serious issues

The result is nutrition from a kid’s-eye point of view.

Under the tutelage of KGNU producers, Eat Your Radio reporters have interviewed classmates about nutrition lessons, gone into their school cafeterias to interview lunchroom workers, and talked to family members about eating habits at home.

Best of Eat Your Radio

They’ve gone into grocery stores to examine the layout of the aisles, and documented how junk food is often put at eye level while fresh fruits and vegetables take more effort to get to.

They’ve created a blog where they can submit nutrition-related questions to “Dr. Carrot,” who responds within a few days with kid-friendly answers.

“We didn’t want to just put a microphone in front of them and have them parrot off lessons,” said Maeve Conran, KGNU’s co-director of news and public affairs. “We wanted to give them mikes and help them get to the truth about nutrition challenges. We’ve had a few reports where we’ve really empowered the kids to talk very sincerely about the challenges they face.”

One of Conran’s favorite shows is “Cavities and candy,” which includes a song one fifth-grader wrote about the evils of sugar, and in which the children share their difficulties in just saying no to candy.

“Part of me does want some and part of me does not,” one child admits. “This much of my body wants some, and the rest doesn’t. I’m like, never mind, I want that candy! Never mind! And I can’t make up my mind.”

“There’s just a real honesty coming from the kids, and you can see how conflicted they are,” Conran says. “They absolutely understand the issues around eating, but it’s hard because it’s so tempting.”

Near the top of Schlender’s list is the segment called Chicken Salad (W)rap, which begins with youngsters learning to make healthy chicken salad tortilla wraps in nutrition class.

Later, a handful of young volunteers gave up their recess time to join Schlender in a supply closet – the quietest room they could find – to come up with a song they could sing about chicken wraps.

“We just started playing with it,” Schlender said.

Then there’s the Broccoli Campaign, a five-part series that ran every day for a week on KGNU, paired with a listener call-in on helping kids learn to eat and like foods they initially refuse to eat. In the segments done at school, the Ashley students shared their own reluctance to try broccoli.

“At one point, one girl’s best friend says ‘I know you love mustard, so why not make a mustard sandwich, and I’ll mix in a little broccoli.’ That’s not something I would have thought of, a broccoli and mustard sandwich,” Schlender said.

Teacher embraces pint-sized broadcast crews in his classroom

Zwick isn’t bothered by having pint-sized broadcast crews prowling his classroom during his lesson. Quite the opposite.

“The kids love the technology,” he said. “I’ve taken some of the things Shelley’s done and put them up on my own website. The kids love to laugh at the videos.”

Learn more

On that Friday, 11-year-old Fabri Esipa got to don the headphones and carry the microphone and interview classmates for the first time.

“I like being a reporter,” she said. “I like reporting what people say. But the hardest thing is to know what you’re going to say to the person.”

Schlender is there to help with that. When the reporters run out of questions, she’s there to coach them with some others, and encourage them not to be shy.

“Ask them what they think they’ll learn from this lesson,” she told Fabri. “And be sure to talk to some of the boys. We want boys’ voices too.”

Eat Your Radio is now in its third year of a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. Conran considers the project to be a huge success with demonstrable results showing that kids who participate in the media portion soak up and remember much more on the nutrition information than kids that don’t.

“Now we’re looking to expand it,” she said. “We’d like to go into other school districts. And I know the schools we’ve worked with have enjoyed it. It benefits the kids in a variety of ways, not just nutrition. It also improves their literacy and their communication skills.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.