The Challenge of Childhood Obesity

Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

Today the BBC news ran yet another article about childhood obesity. According to an analysis of data from over 200 countries, levels of obesity in children and teenagers have risen four fold in the past forty years.

For the UK, the terrifying statistic is:

‘one in every 10 young people aged five to 19, is obese.’

Childhood obesity is not news. We have known for some time that children are getting fatter. The phrase ‘obesity epidemic’ is frequently in the news.

And it’s not just children.

We are all getting fatter and this is a huge problem. It is a huge problem for our health and it is a huge problem for our health services. The Chief Executive of the NHS has warned that obesity threatens to bankrupt the NHS. In 2014, 27% of adults in the UK were obese.

Schools and teachers are going to have to be a part of the solution to this crisis. I do not believe that schools should be responsible for teaching children everything or that teachers should be fulfilling the role of parents. Parents have got to take responsibility for their own health and for the long-term health of their children. After all, teachers also have to find time for literacy and numeracy.

However, we have to find a way of breaking the cycle of overweight and obese children becoming overweight and obese adults before we see any more increase in unnecessary premature deaths.

There are a number of reasons for this drastic increase in obesity. The biggest two are:

  • The availability of cheap, nutrient-poor, calorie-dense food.
  • A lack of physical activity.

I believe that schools have done a huge amount to tackle the first of these. School dinners have come a long way since the days of Jamie’s School Dinners. Lots of schools now have their own vegetable gardens. Education on nutrition and food is also often excellent. I think that there is plenty of fantastic work on this that should carry on. It is part of the science curriculum, it can also be part of literacy, numeracy and other areas of the curriculum with a little imagination.

But, I think that the input of schools on food is also limited.

The problem is that primary school children have very little control over what they eat. On the whole, they do not choose, plan or buy their own food. They are dependent on the adults in their lives for food. By the time they are old enough to make more of their own choices, habits are entrenched. To me, the snacks that many children are sent to school with demonstrates the limitations.

I think that all the wonderful things that are happening in schools relating to food should be celebrated and continued. But I think that more needs to be done with adults and with food producers and suppliers to address this.

That leaves physical activity.

I believe that this is where there is huge potential for even more input from schools.

PE is already taught in schools. Certainly in Scotland there are government targets relating to this. But I do not believe that PE is the whole answer.

I am not running down the importance of PE, it is important. But PE tends to focus on sport. Sport is not the answer to childhood activity levels. The gym is not the answer to adult obesity levels.

The BBC article mentioned above quotes Dr Harry Rutter, an obesity researcher:

‘We have not become more weak-willed, lazy or greedy. The reality is the world around us is changing.’

The world around us has changed. In the UK many people have jobs where they sit at a desk. When we are not at work, we have TVs, mobile phones, laptops and ipads to amuse us. When we want to get somewhere, we drive. Our lives have become sedentary.

Somewhere along the line we have lost the habit of physical activity. We go to the gym to ‘get some exercise’ but we do not embed physical activity into our lives.

People are not designed to sit still for long periods of time. Watching young children at play demonstrates this. In the absence of screens and with the freedom to move, young children spend a huge amount of their time moving.

My 5 year old started Primary One in August. Occasionally he can be quite profound and his insight on growing up was:

“Mummy, the older you get, the more you have to sit still”

I have to hand it to him, he’s not wrong.

Our lifestyles are not going to change drastically. Technology is here to stay and hurrah to that. I for one do not plan to give up my mobile or my laptop or my TV. We need to re-establish the habit of physical activity and we need to embed this into our lives from a very early age.

We need to embed this into our schools from a very early age. We need to remember that is is natural to move.

I believe that this is where there is huge potential for schools to contribute to the health of future generations.

Schools are already doing wonderful things to promote physical activity. The Daily Mile is a fantastic example.

But I don’t think that the approach is right yet. We need to make physical activity an integral part of living and learning all the time. Not just physical activity during PE or the daily mile or breaks between lessons but all the time. Sitting down should be a break between lessons involving movement.

But we still need to meet all the curriculum requirements. So, we are going to have to be very creative about how we teach.

Fortunately, creativity in teaching is something which teachers excel at.

This is one of the most wonderfully creative ideas I’ve ever seen. A quote from the teacher responsible sums up the childrens’ need to move:

‘Because they’re sitting still all day long they start to get restless and start tapping their desks and their feet are moving about,” she said.

“They’re not doing it to be defiant – it’s just about being able to move.’

I do not have all the answers, although I do have some suggestions for starters:

  • SCHOOL TRAVEL: Schools need to involve pupils in every step of writing a School Travel Plan. The plan needs to lead to action. Travel to and from school has to become active for the vast majority of pupils. We need to encourage children to educate their parents about leaving the car at home for short journeys.
  • HOMEWORK: My experience has been that children and their parents love homework which involves getting outdoors and moving. It can provide quality time together as well as physical activity.
  • CREATIVE NUMERACY: The pedometer project which I did with a P4/5 class had incredible results in numeracy and physical activity.
  • OUTDOOR LEARNING: If you can teach it outside, teach it outside.
  • TEACH SPEAKING AND LISTENING BY GOING FOR A WALK: A weekly afternoon walk with my class allowed the children to learn to chat. Not just to their friends but to classmates they didn’t know well or didn’t particularly like. For many, small talk takes practice.
  • USE DRAMA AS INSPIRATION FOR WRITING: Story writing can be inspired by ‘acting out’ first.
  • CLASSROOM SETUP: Would you be brave enough to try standing desks or a desk free classroom?

Please share your experiences, ideas and inspiration and lets get everyone moving.




2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Childhood Obesity

  1. Mornic Reply

    Strangely no mention of how strongly obesity is correlated with poverty

    • Diana Farrell Post authorReply

      You are absolutely right. It is such a big topic I felt it was best to focus on the issues schools could contribute to.

      I think that the poverty aspect is most closely related to the availability of cheap processed food. This is something which must be addressed through the government, food producers and food suppliers. We should not be living in a society where people cannot afford to eat nutritious food. There is also something very wrong with living in a society where people are forced to depend on food banks to feed their children.

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