How are we doing? Educating our tamariki about physical activity, food and nutrition

We all know the facts – shocking as they are – New Zealand’s kids are amongst the most overweight in the world.

In late 2015, Cabinet endorsed a package of initiatives to both prevent and manage obesity in children and young people aged up to 18 years. As children and young people spend approximately a third of their waking hours during the school term at school, and often more time in early childhood services, these settings are an important environment for influencing their physical activity and food choices.

There is robust evidence to suggest that optimal nutrition for young people and educational outcomes are linked, in both the short and long term.  If children and young people do not have an adequate intake of micronutrients, their brains are not able to function optimally. There is further evidence showing that children who eat breakfast have improved test scores and fewer days away from school. Physical activity has also been linked with improved educational outcomes for students. Students that are more physically active and have higher fitness levels tend to spend more time on-task and have higher levels of achievement.

The Sport in Education project has led to increased attendance, higher student engagement and improved assessment results for secondary school students. Clear food policies and good education about nutrition can improve at-risk children’s nutritional status, help them build healthy eating habits and learn skills to support their decision making throughout their lives.

As part of the initiative we were asked to evaluate the current status of food, nutrition and physical activity in schools and early childhood services. We visited 202 early learning services, 46 primary schools and 29 secondary schools and asked the same question in each service/school:

How well does the service/school promote positive attitudes to physical activity, and food and nutrition to benefit children?

Our findings are published in the Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity in NZ Schools and Early Learning Services report. Our evaluation found that most schools and services were doing well at promoting positive attitudes to food, nutrition and physical activity. Acknowledging and valuing the wellbeing of children seemed to be the clear driver for these services and schools. This focus on wellbeing underpinned their policies and curriculum plans and ensured that children and young people were exposed to consistent messages about healthy choices.

A clear vision or philosophy valuing health and wellbeing was important for both schools and services. This set the foundation for teachers’ and leaders’ actions, meaning that positive messages were consistent across the school or service. Passionate leadership, clear policies and curriculum plans guided teachers’ practice and ensured that all children and young people had opportunities to participate and learn about food, nutrition and physical activity. Where schools or services were not doing so well, health and wellbeing was not explicitly valued. Policies and plans were not as clear, or were absent. They were not useful for guiding teachers and leaders in their practice. Some children and young people missed out on opportunities to learn about physical activity, and competition was valued over participation.

While schools and services were doing a good job of equipping students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to make healthy choices around food, nutrition and physical activity, students were not always able to make these healthy choices. Leaders said that environmental, resourcing and financial constraints limited children’s access to nutritious food and opportunities for physical activity. Young people were restricted in their ability to make healthy nutritional choices by the food that was available to them, either provided by their parents or that was affordable. Some leaders found ways to address these constraints and others struggled to address them.

Our report gives examples of the ways services and schools met the needs of their children and young people. Schools and early learning services can teach children and young people to value healthy food, nutrition and physical activity. The wider community needs to support them with opportunities to enact these values.

Key questions

  • How well are physical activity, food and nutrition programmes planned and implemented?
  • How well are children learning about and participating in programmes and activities relating to physical activity, food and nutrition?
  • How well is the service/school involving whānau and the community in approaches and activities?
  • How are teachers supported to have the professional capability to promote positive attitudes to physical activity, food and nutrition?
  • What do children know and value about physical activity, food and nutrition that will help them to make healthy choices in the future?
  • How do children actively contribute to decisions about physical activity, food and nutrition in their service/school? 

Students having team talk with PE teacher on field