LIHUE — Four- and five-year-old children in Kauai and throughout the state are coming into public schools with serious health problems due to physical inactivity.
“They’re coming into kindergarten with diabetes now,” said Michelle Jenkins of The Healthy Hawaii Initiative and a district physical health education resource teacher. “It’s something that we need to make sure stops and we need to make a culture change.”
Hawaii leads the nation in prevalence of most chronic diseases by about 20 percent, according to the DOE’s Wellness Guidelines. Furthermore, one in two of Hawaii’s children born today will develop diabetes and one in seven will develop kidney related diseases related to diabetes mellitus and hypertension.
A change in culture, promoting physical activity and recreation time during school hours is a mission of the state’s Department of Education and Complex-Area Superintendent Bill Arakaki.
“With school, we have them for over one-third of the day, so how do we provide them with the opportunity to have that physical activity?” Arakaki told The Garden Island. “We support the balance of not only academic achievement, it needs to be balanced with physical activity; the whole child. And apart of it is having recess.”
All elementary and middle schools on Kauai have a mandatory 20-minute recess for students. Schools aren’t just being judged based off of test scores, they’re being measured in how students develop mentally and physically.
“All of our schools, each year, they complete a survey called the SAWS, and they each receive a rating,” Arakaki said. “Besides our test scores and achievement ratings, we also look at what’s happening with nutrition and physical education because that’s the other side of the child. Some are doing really well, some are not.”
For the 2015-2016 school year, three schools — Kaumualii, Wilcox and Waimea Canyon — received a 91 out of 100 in the most recent SAWS Data. It marked the fourth year in a row that Waimea Canyon scored 90 or better.
Recess has become more than getting the kids outside of the classroom and running around the playground.
“They just need a break,” Jenkins said. “Their brains just can’t process it all. It’s like being in the classroom all day, they just can’t take it,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said being active and exercising has a direct benefit to a student’s ability to learn.
“The brain needs oxygen to function. How do you get oxygen to the brain? Through the blood. How do you get the blood pumping? Well, you have to exercise, you have to move. The more you exercise, the more oxygen and nutrients you’re getting to the brain,” she said. “The brain function now is a lot higher than when you just sit in a chair for 20 minutes or so.”
Jenkins used the country of Finland as an example of a school system that has created an equilibrium of mental and physical activity.
“In their school systems, those kids get a 15-minute break after every hour. And their academics show that they’ve gotten their energy out, their blood is flowing and they’re able to sit down and concentrate,” she said.
With beaches and outdoor activities available to students, Arakaki said there should be a shift in focus to promote those types of recreation.
Arakaki wants a change in mindset among the community because today’s students will be parents and members of the community tomorrow.
“In the long run, we’re going to improve health for our children and lessen diabetes and obesity and things that impact our students a lot,” he said.
Arakaki has worked with Wilcox Medical Center to set up physical exams and workshops with kids and the DOE has organized walk to school days with the Department of Health to promote physical activity.
Another thing the DOE is doing is structuring recess into organized exercise and recreation.
“There’s a walking track, there’s an area for this game or this particular game over here,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to encourage the kids to go out and be physically active. And luckily at the schools, they’re not allowed to be out and be on their phone, especially at the elementary and middle school level.”
Jenkins recognized that a student playing with their phone instead of moving around is a concern, but she sees modern technology as an avenue to better approach physical health.
“We use heart rate monitors for the kids and it shows up on a screen and we get to monitor their levels of physical activity and we like to get them to 60 to 70 percent, which is a moderate to vigorous physical activity so we can actually tell how much they spent in a P.E. class in a moderate or vigorous activity,” she said. “And some kids, if they ask their teachers, can actually use it during recess.”
Arakaki said Kauai’s schools are trending in the right direction. Out of the 16 schools on the Garden Isle, seven had SAWS scores that were lower than 75 percent.
“We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet,” he said.