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HeLP-ing Schoolchildren with Healthy Lifestyles

Posted on September 10th 2014

An innovative programme which brings actors into the classroom to encourage and support children to make healthier choices on diet and exercise has been selected to feature in this week’s British Science Festival.

The Healthy Lifestyles Programme (HeLP) is being run by specialists from the University of Exeter Medical School and Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, supported by the NIHR CLAHRC South West Peninsula (also known as PenCLAHRC). It is funded by a £1.35 million grant from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Public Research Programme.

HeLP is currently working with 32 schools across Devon, in a controlled experiment to assess whether this drama-based approach to help children reflect on their diet and activity choices is an effective way to make a positive impact on healthy lifestyles.

The HeLP programme sees Y5 pupils (aged 9-10 years old) work with  a drama group, who play the part of four characters: Snacky Sam, Disorganised Duncan, Active Amy and Football Freddie. The children choose the character with whom they most closely identify, and work with them to act out scenarios in which the characters make changes to the food and drink they choose. Sessions specifically focus on snacks, meals, fizzy drinks and how much activity and screen time they engage in. The programme, which runs over three terms, involves special assemblies, activity workshops, and sessions such as food tasting, in which children sample healthy snacks such as dried fruits and seeds, often trying something new for the first time. The overall ethos of the programme is that four fifths of the choices should be healthy, with one fifth for treats. A key element is involving parents, who come into the school to see their children perform in the drama sessions.

In the Outram household, the programme has made a huge difference at mealtimes. No longer are battle lines drawn up over broccoli and salad. Instead, 10-year-old Grace Outram willingly eats her greens, and now requests healthy snacks such as bananas in her lunchbox. Her mother, Maria Outram, a PA at Bere Alston School in West Devon, where Grace takes part in the programme, said:

“Grace would never eat anything that was green or grown, but now she always makes sure she has some kind of vegetable or salad on her plate. She’s always been quite active, but very stubborn about her food, and mealtimes would often turn into a stand-off where we had to sit it out while she ignored her vegetables. Now she’s trying things that she would have turned her nose up at before. It’s absolutely brilliant. Every school should be doing it.”

Grace said:

“I’ve really enjoyed the programme. My favourite part was writing and performing a rap about healthy living. It’s really made me think about what’s healthy, and to realise that sometimes it’s not always obvious which products contain the most sugar.”

Lead Investigator Professor Katrina Wyatt said:

“We were delighted that our ground-breaking programme is being showcased at the British Science Festival. We welcome the opportunity to discuss how we developed the programme and how we are assessing its effectiveness. The ongoing trial splits the schools into two groups, to assess whether the programme is effective in supporting children to make healthy behaviour choices and preventing them from gaining excess weight. A pilot involving four schools was very encouraging, and indicated that our programme can have a positive impact on children’s snacking habits and activity levels. If we can show that HeLP can have a benefit to children’s behaviours, we hope it will eventually be rolled out to all schools nationwide.”

Dr Jenny Lloyd, who has led the development of HeLP, said:

“We find that the children are so engaged and enthused with this approach that they go home and talk to their parents about it, encouraging them to come into the school and initiating discussion at home about making small lifestyle changes as a family. HeLP aims to educate children and encourage them to consider any changes they would like to make to their snacking habits and activity levels, which could make a huge difference in the long term. The programme has been carefully designed to enable and support children to make small, sustainable changes to their lifestyles and the involvement of families is central to achieving this. Family members are encouraged to attend key events and we are really hoping that they take up the offer and come in to the school to see all the exciting work the children are doing.”

So far, 32 schools are taking part in a trial of HeLP. Half receive the programme, while the other half follow the usual curriculum, but are assessed and act as controls to help scientists understand whether the programme effectively improves children’s lifestyles. Unhealthy lifestyles have become a major issue over the past 30 years. Data from the latest 2011 Health Survey for England reported that a third of 11-15 year old children were either overweight or obese. Being overweight in childhood is associated with serious long-term health problems, including increased risk of Type II diabetes and musculo-skeletal and psychological problems. If current trends continue, the Government has been warned that two thirds of all children under 16 years will be overweight or obese by 2050, and the annual cost to the UK and the NHS would be £50 billion.

James McInnes, Cabinet Member for Schools at Devon County Council, said:

"Devon schools have always led the way with innovative ideas to improve life for our children. Naturally we want every child in every Devon school to achieve the best they can academically. But a good education is about more than exam results. This programme could help our children lead healthier, more rewarding and fulfilling lives and I am delighted that so many Devon schools are taking part, particularly as our county provides so many opportunities to enjoy a healthy lifestyle."

You can read more about the HeLP project here.


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