Kiwi kids who ate chocolate bars for breakfast and struggled to walk for one minute have transformed their diets and lifestyles thanks to an online “virtual challenge”.
The Zespri Young and Healthy “virtual adventure” gave primary school children virtual rewards for eating fruit and veges, moving more often, sleeping well, minimising their leisure screen time and drinking more water.
All of the 20,000 children in the adventure were given their own avatars, and their real-world healthy activities moved their class around the virtual world to countries such as China and Peru.
Rugby player Ardie Savea, netballer Ameliaranne Ekenasio, cricketer Kane Williamson and Black Sticks hockey player Samantha Charlton guided the children in the virtual world and also visited some of their real-world classrooms.
Young and Healthy Trust founder Kim Harvey said she was inspired to start the programme because of New Zealand’s appalling child health statistics.
A study by the Imperial College of London last month found Pacific Island and Kiwi kids were among the fattest and least healthy in the world.
Unicef’s annual Innocenti report card painted a similar picture in naming New Zealand adolescents as some of the most overweight in the OECD. Out of 41 OECD and EU countries, New Zealand was ranked second-to-worst for childhood obesity.
Harvey said the virtual adventure cut students’ average screen time at home from an hour and a half a day before the programme to an hour a day.
Before the programme, 48 per cent of the children were eating two or three snack foods such as chips, pretzels and cookies every day. More than half of that group cut their snack foods to one a day.
Instead, 37 per cent ate one or two extra fruit and vegetable servings a day, and the numbers drinking the recommended minimum of five cups of water a day jumped from 19 per cent to 66 per cent.
Papatoetoe South School teacher Amy Farrell signed up her Years 2-3 class after she noticed some of her students struggling to walk as far as the school hall.
“Some of the children, when we’d walk to the hall, would be really tired. It was like a one-minute walk,” she said.
Some told her they had had only a chocolate bar for breakfast, then wanted to snack again because they were hungry half-way through the morning.
To boost the students’ fitness, the school brought in a dance teacher who has taught the children a dance which they will perform to the whole school this week.
The Young and Healthy Trust gave Farrell’s class 10 pedometers and the children took turns wearing them for a day in a competition to see who took the most steps.
“Depending on how many steps you achieved, that determined where you got positioned. Achieving so many steps moved you to different places,” she said.
“My class really enjoyed being in China. We found out about different things to do in China, like the Great Wall of China.
“There was also one leg of the tour in New Zealand. They hadn’t really heard of the places in New Zealand, but then they felt, ‘I’ve been there.'”
Swimming counted as an activity too, and more students started attending swimming lessons as the programme progressed.
“Previously about three-quarters of them were in it, now there’s only one girl who doesn’t take part,” Farrell said.
Zespri, which sponsored the challenge, put on a “community day” for children and their families at the school with bikes, a bouncy castle and other activities.
Farrell spoke to her students’ parents when they picked up their children from school, encouraging them to buy big packets of porridge instead of chocolate bars for breakfast, and to play ball games after school instead of watching TV.
Parents used the school’s Seesaw app to post video of their children doing sit-ups and other exercises.
Farrell also showed the children what she was eating for lunch, and her own water bottle, encouraging them to bring fruit, vegetables and water bottles too.
“About half of them brought water bottles. Now we make sure there are enough, so if children need to get water they can,” she said.
Aurora Kelly, 7, took part in the dancing, swimming, cross-country and athletics and also played more on her trampoline at home because of the challenge.
Harvey said the programme also encouraged children to get more sleep, lifting average sleep times by one hour a night.
“We are seeing the children learning about sleep and screen time and what they are eating, which has an impact on their sleep,” she said.
“If we can help instil good habits in them when they’re young, then they are going to be able to manage anxiety – which we are seeing a lot more of – and learn really well and build the best future that they can.”
• Applications for next year’s virtual adventure are now open to schools.
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