Shannon Nickinson: Program takes aim at kids’ weight, readiness for kindergarten

opinion (Large)

A child’s work is play, the saying goes.

Which is why adults are always trying to sneak learning into places where kids are already having fun.

That’s part of the theory behind the Story Walk at Bryan Park in Northeast Pensacola. The park is built around the Tryon Branch of the West Florida Regional Public Library. Its landmark feature is the pirate ship, though it also stands out from the crowd of the city’s 93 parks because the play equipment includes a saucer-shaped swing and a rope-climbing tower.

Now it has a new feature, one that builds on two areas our community needs to make progress in — kindergarten readiness and the rates of obesity and excess weight.

The Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard includes 16 metrics meant to measure the educational, economic and social well-being of our community. Among them are kindergarten readiness and the overweight and obesity rates.

They are two areas in which Pensacola needs great improvement if the health, vitality and productivity of our community are to improve.

As a recap, the Dashboard shows that only 66 percent of our 5-year-olds are ready for school, and 60 percent of adults in Escambia County are overweight or obese. That excessive weight diminishes their lifespans and costs workplaces in the two-county area some $600 million a year in health-care costs.

Public health officials hope the Story Walk can help address both.

It fits into the Health Department’s 5-2-1-0 campaign — an effort aimed at reducing childhood obesity by encouraging kids to eat healthy foods, exercise and reduce their screen time.

The idea of 5-2-1-0 — that you should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, have no more than two hours of screen time, get one hour of physical activity and have zero sugary drinks per day — is an idea that Health Department public information officer Marie Mott says was adapted from a public health campaign in Maine.

School health nurses had piloted a temporary Story Walk idea at a school, but Mott says everyone wanted a permanent installation.

“We wanted a park near a library to connect the importance of physical activity with reading,” Mott said. “Bryan Park was perfect for that.”

Tonya Vaden, the city parks department’s marketing director, says the collaboration with the Health Department was a great way to get kids reading and moving.

Each story panel is a two-page spread of the book and each panel encourages kids to do a physical activity.

One panel encourages them to see how long they can stand on one foot. Another tells them to spin in a circle to see if they are standing alone as the boy in the story is.

The Health Department has stepped up its outreach in the 0 to 5 age range in recent years. Health Department nurses visit childcare centers with lessons based on the 5-2-1-0 campaign, along with the hearing, vision and height and weight checks.

With the help of researchers from the University of West Florida, they have prepared education toolkits on health and nutrition and gotten them to childcare centers so that those lessons can be built into the curriculum — and so that they can include a healthy dose of physical activity.

“And not just outside play, though that is important,” Mott says. “But things as well that can be done inside the classroom.”

The Story Walk is a small step. But its message is important and powerful. So much so that Pensacola native and NBA great Reggie Evans was at the opening of the Story Walk to read “Juggling through the Jungle,” the story that the Walk is built around.

The City of Pensacola is in the process of long-term planning for parks. Through June, city officials will take public input, as well as research from UWF’s Sports Management and Public Administration departments and analyze it.

The plan is to present a strategic proposal to the public by August.

Which means we have a chance, as the adults, to make our children’s play time into something really special.

Something that builds their minds and bodies. And ultimately, builds our community’s future.


Shannon Nickinson is a fellow at the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola nonprofit dedicated to using journalistic strategies to improve the quality of life in the community, and is editor of Follow her on Twitter @snickinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.  

Shannon Nickinson


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