Growing Awareness of Obesity in Children

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has recently adopted a new category to define obesity in children — the 85th percentile, or children“at risk” due to excessive body mass, and the 95th percentile, or severely at risk due to excessive body mass. Currently, 15 percent of young adults in the age range from six to 11 are in the 95th percentile of excessive body mass. They’re severely overweight.

Mental Health Linked to Physical Health

Other studies have shown that regular exercise contributes to better physical, as well as mental, health and improved brain activity. The average school-age child spends on average 4.8 hours a day in a sedentary activity outside of school, either watching television or on a computer. Current studies also indicate the correlation between a lack of physical exercise and the increase of high blood pressure, diabetes and circulatory problems in children and young adults. According to the American Heart Association, there have been recent studies linking mental acuity and a heightened ability to learn to heightened physical activity or regular exercise.

Learning and Life-Skills in Public Education — Exercise and Nutrition

These studies have raised concern about the increase in the accelerating rate of obesity in children and young adults. They have also led to a growing awareness of the need to pay attention to what we eat and how much we exercise. The situation has also generated heightened awareness of the need to address eating habits, nutrition and daily activity or exercise in young adults.

It appears that increased physical activity could have a positive effect on the overall health of a school-age child, and offer the potential of improved life-long physical and mental conditions. As a result, there are opportunities in educational settings to support an integrated curriculum that combines physical activity, nutrition and active learning skills through the planning and layout of the facility.

As we look to the future, planning physical education spaces in educational environments may present a challenge to develop a more direct relationship between traditional teaching/learning spaces and gross motor activity spaces. Active learning may have a more literal meaning. The ideal model may already exist, if we look at a typical kindergarten area of an elementary school. Most kindergarten rooms, or collection of rooms, allow for both an indoor, as well as specific outdoor gross motor areas. There is an acknowledgement in early childhood educational models that activity plays a significant role in both the physical and mental development of the child. Nutrition is also integrated through regulated snacks that support the total curriculum. The children are introduced to various learning styles, reinforced by nutritional lessons that address types of food and the appropriate times to consume them.

So What Did We Forget From Kindergarten?

In most educational planning models, the concept of integrating learning styles with activity spaces, combined with direct nutrition training, is relegated to kindergarten and early childhood spaces. Once we leave kindergarten, we adopt a more sedentary learning environment in a classroom setting with classrooms/instructional spaces grouped together and separated from activity spaces. Cafeteria and food service areas are most typically“release” spaces to escape instructional learning environments with the emphasis on social interaction rather than nutritional instruction.

Learning From Our Habits, or Learning New Habits

Moving along the educational process, through elementary school and on through middle and high school, “activity” components in the curriculum play less and less of a role in overall instruction. Similarly, the nutritional component of the learning environment is almost non-existent, replaced by the need to meet minimal guidelines and the bottom line for food service.

Physical education should not be confused with “athletics.” Athletics are enrichment activities that occur outside of the normal school day and are optional activities, but physical education should be a component of the curriculum, and we need to look to new models that reflect a more integrated approach, similar to the kindergarten model.

Learning from our former habits, and in an attempt to modify our future ones, should we push the kindergarten model forward in concept to embrace integrated learning that incorporates “activity” into learning and offers the opportunity to promote nutrition as a component of total “physical education”?

Changing Habits Means Changing Perceptions

To change our habits means changing our perceptions of how we deliver education. It means shifting the paradigms of how we look at educational space and how we zone educational facilities.

Large “book stores,” with coffee bar, comfortable seating and integrated technology have had a profound effect on the current design of school media centers. Students are much more interested in spending time in a big box bookstore than they are in a “library.” So, the more we can learn about sales and the environment of the book store sales and transfer that to “school libraries,” the better the potential for reinforcing the importance, or certainly the attractiveness, of the school “media-center.”


Just as a school library can be far more than a “library,” and can borrow from other successful “media” models, physical education spaces in schools can be far more than gyms and locker rooms. Using the kindergarten model — with integrated curriculum and space layered on top each other — the significant components deal with:

• space for directed instruction that is passive,

• space for directed activity that follows instruction,

• space for exploratory activity that can be reinforced by instruction and

• space for nutritional consumption (snack) that corresponds to an activity.

There is the opportunity to reinforce instruction, as well as cause and effect. Activity can be an instructional component of the curriculum, related to thematic issues in core academic subjects like science and math but especially to nutrition and “Health and Wellness.”

Cause and Effect in Learning Styles and Environments

Planning physical education spaces for the future needs to look for opportunities to tie cause and effect together. It can be something as simple as reinforcing the fact that activity burns calories that are supplied by food, and there needs to be a balance between the amount of activity and the amount of food consumed to maintain a healthy balance for overall physical health. This relates directly to mental performance and ultimately to academic achievement.

Both Brownsburg West and Brownsburg East Middle Schools in Brownsburg, Ind., have adopted a more integrated approach to combining physical education spaces in close proximity to food/cafeteria and health classrooms.

This has the additional advantage of making a statement to the community about the integration of physical education, overall health and nutrition. Proximity is the initial step in integrating the programmatic spaces to reinforce the importance of activity, nutrition and mental/physical performance.

This arrangement has the added advantage of offering the potential of use of the activity and instructional spaces by the community. An integrated educational approach can be reinforced with community-based programs, such as health fairs and wellness programs.

Life-Long Learning and Planning Physical Education Spaces

The incorporation of fitness areas into the planning of future physical education areas can borrow from the modern day “health club.” The typical health club — and even YMCAs — attract clientele who aspire to “look good,” and a significant part of personal appearance is related to overall physical health and conditioning. Nutrition and healthy diet contribute to successful physical conditioning. Placement and proximity of fitness or physical activity areas and nutrition supplement areas like the cafeteria offer educational opportunities to reinforce health and wellness and the relationship of nutrition and activity, much like the kindergarten room that incorporates activities with nutrition.

Similar to the modern “health club” that puts the activity area — or fitness room — on display to highlight the attractiveness of the users and the activities, the fitness rooms at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis are part of the public spaces and become more of an advertisement for the benefits and attractiveness of physical fitness.

The Challenge for Future Planning of Physical Education Spaces

The opportunity to integrate program, nutrition and overall health conscious, activity-based curriculum and extend the integrated concepts from kindergarten through to the larger community is the challenge for planning physical education spaces in the future. Changing paradigms and assessing corporate models of effective salesmanship — such as the aspiration for improved appearance — become effective tools to embrace as educational opportunities. Supporting physical education through planning and design of facilities that address an integrated approach to total health as a means to achieve better life-long health is the challenge and the key to successful and sustaining total educational facilities.

Thomas G. Neff, AIA, is a principal with Schmidt Associates — a full-service architectural/engineering firm in Indianapolis. His focus is the K-12 market in which he’s been involved for 20 years. He can be reached at .