Splashing their way to learning

2011-11-12 18:27

South Africa’s children are growing fat and unfit. Some schools lack the resources to offer learners regular sport and recreation.

Others struggle to establish a culture of good eating habits in the face of poverty, malnutrition and the temptations of tuck shops selling cheap junk food to hungry learners who want a sugar rush from the nearest fatcake or fizzy drink at break time.

Rich or poor, kids will be kids.

But in the face of such challenges, we found a number of schools across South Africa that are doing their best to turn the tables.

We met teachers who care deeply about the health and development of the children in their charge.

We learned more about the education department’s feeding schemes that provide a hot, nutritious meal each day to children who would otherwise go hungry.

We spoke to sports teachers, principals, tuckshop moms, school nutritionists and dozens of children themselves to hear their views on health, diet and exercise.

Without exception, the educators we spoke to agreed: children who have access to nutritious food and plenty of exercise are healthier, happier and wide awake in the classroom.

These are their stories.

The sports-mad principal of East London’s George Randell Primary says beating the bulge and living healthily, through recreation and sport, has become a school specialty in recent years.

Teacher Hilton Williams is all too aware that “obesity is becoming more prevalent with no sport or recreation, coupled with poor diet and eating habits”.

The principal of this 100-year-old school is not taking the situation lying down – or letting his learners do so.

“We hold numerous fun days throughout the year including Splash Day (water sports) and athletics Fun Day as well as a programme where grade Rs are exposed to various physical skills,” says Williams.

George Randell Primary has compulsory weekly physical education classes for all learners from age five to 13, as well as numerous extra-curricular sports and recreational activities that include modern dancing. The school’s newsletter regularly offers tips to parents on how they can help to nurture their childrens’ minds and bodies.

George Randell serves a mixed-income community that includes families from the suburbs of Sunnyridge and Greenfields and the surrounding townships.

As part of principal Williams’ health drive, changes have been made to offerings at the school tuck shop.

Sweets, food with high-fat content such as doughnuts and fizzy drinks are no longer on sale – except on Fridays – at the privately run shop.

Manager Jacqueline “Aunty Jackie” Kruger sells a selection of locally produced dried fruit, biltong, honey sticks, fruit juice and water.

“Aunty Jackie” also stocks pies, hotdogs made from pork-free viennas, salad rolls, mini-pizzas, tartrazine-free crisps and popcorn.

“On Fridays the school allows us to sell treats like doughnuts, sweets and fizzy drinks, and you find lots of interest in the shop then,” she laughs.

“But we’re slowly getting children to accept the new diet. We’re now selling up to six salad rolls a day, from just one last year.”

Establishing a culture of better eating habits and regular exercise has had spinoffs. The school has upped its status in the city’s sports leagues, and is also a hunting ground for elite high schools which talent scout for scholarship material.

Grade 6 teacher Josh Kent says: “You can see the effects in the classroom. These activities foster socialisation and teamwork, and you see a general improvement in schoolwork and discipline.”

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