Here’s a little piece I wrote for the Education sector in the Education Gazette, around the big issues for our kids..
Opinion piece: By Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Human Potential Centre at AUT Millennium, and the Ministry of Education’s Chief Education Health and Nutrition Advisor.
What should a rich, developed country like New Zealand be aspiring towards? I think having a good life for all would be a great aspiration.
But what’s a good life?
A good life starts with having the health to physically and mentally do whatever else you want to. Without that base, you have very little to go on with.
New Zealand’s report card looks pretty poor as far as ‘good health’ is concerned. Yes, we live longer than we ever have, but our healthy life expectancy hasn’t kept up. There’s now a big gap between actual life expectancy and ‘healthy’ life expectancy. Men average 79 years of life, but just 65 of healthy life. Women average 83 years, with 66 healthy. Māori men average 72 years with just 54 years healthy.
And…we spend $18.1 billion on health. But the reality is that almost all of those billions go on sorting out sickness. That sickness system is helping us have longer lives but not necessarily better lives.
Why I am writing this in the Gazette? Shouldn’t we be focused on young people, not old people, as educators?
Well, if we want to change the behaviours that really determine our health, we are going to have to look outside the health system. And we are going to have to start with young people.
The five big things that affect our healthy life are all set up when we are young. It’s about not smoking, less alcohol, better nutrition, better sleep, and how much we move (more activity). We’ve made great progress on smoking and to an extent alcohol harm, but nutrition, sleep, and physical activity are all arguably getting worse.
A recent PISA report from the OECD tells us that exercise and activity are important for the wellbeing of our youth.
Here’s the top four challenges I think we all face in boosting our young people’s health and wellbeing, and ultimately that of society:
Challenge 1: Mobile devices
They are pretty much the most useful device invented. You carry instant access to all the knowledge of humanity in your hand. Awesome. And they are awesome tools. The mobile is a great servant, yet a hideous master.
High device use disrupts sleep quantity and quality, reduces activity, and has the potential to disrupt genuine experiences with friends, and promote bullying. Understanding how to effectively use, but contain mobile devices, in our young people is the critical challenge of our time. As parents and educators, let’s help ourselves too. Let’s model what we want to see in our youth.
Challenge 2: Getting outside
Getting outdoors and moving is effective in improving mood, reducing depression, improving academic performance, and improving sleep. This can easily be a priority in education. Scientifically it makes sense. My challenge to you is how to build this into the rest of your curriculum delivery. The Hauora aspects of the HPE curriculum lend achievements in this curriculum and learning area to also achieving across multiple other areas of literacy, numeracy and inquiry.
Can you take some of your teaching outside and have physical activity involved?
Challenge 3: Free-range kids
Risk and adventure on your own terms is part of growing healthy kids. We now know that frontal lobe development (read self-control and risk management) develops when you engage in unstable outdoor activity. That means play with consequences. Playstations do not help this development. There are no consequences when you crash your car on Grand Theft Auto. There are consequences for poor tree climbing skill.
Schools can allow tree climbing, adventurous and vigorous play, and even some full contact games. I’m not talking about negligence. I’m talking about helping children learn about risk before they are driving a car and exposed to drugs and alcohol as teenagers. We have a choice in society when we learn this. The earlier the better in my opinion.
Challenge 4: Food
It’s pretty obvious that the modern, industrial food supply bears little resemblance to what humans have eaten for most of the time we’ve been on the planet. Highly processed and packaged food is bad for the youth brain, body, learning and their mental health. There is so much infighting and confusion in nutrition science, but one thing we all agree on is that whole unprocessed food is the way to go.
That’s why I’d like to introduce you to the ‘HI’ (Human Interference) factor. The guide to healthy eating need not get into the ins and outs of fats, carbs, sugars and so on. All we need to ask ourselves is, “Was this plant/animal recently alive in nature running around or growing somewhere?” Yes = eat it. No – it doesn’t resemble anything recently alive = don’t eat it. If we can start a movement around this approach, we will be most of the way to eating healthy again. Big Food companies, who market highly processed, sugary foods won’t like this one bit. In my opinion, Big Food shouldn’t be welcome in our schools. They are behaving exactly like Big Tobacco did – creating confusion, buying science, giving misinformation, and associating themselves with sport and young athletes.
That’s it. Challenges, not answers.