Designed to Curb Obesity

In recent years, promoting sustainable design has at times taken away from the emphasis on obesity affecting school children. According to one school designer, “We live in a sedentary society, and it is time to get aggressive about this subject.” Traditional school design has focused on creating a “culture of convenience” that minimizes travel times between classes. In a scramble to accommodate schedules, facilities were designed in tight-knit spaces that hindered any physical movement among children.

Designing spaces that help curb obesity in school children is one of the toughest school design issues at hand. Most will agree that there is a lot of head nodding out there regarding this topic but not a lot of implementation.

Architects and facility planners have started taking notice. They now use “responsive designs,” that view learning “as occurring inside the facility as well as places that go beyond the walls of the buildings,” says Peter Lippman, Education Resource Planner at JCJ Architects.

“As a profession, we are beginning to understand that learning must extend beyond the classroom. Regarding the notion of obesity, this means that learners are being asked to become fully engaged at levels not just introspectively, but physically, in their learning,” says Lippman. This trend is seen not just in elementary schools but also in high schools.

Schools are also promoting physical activity using spaces that include less conventional seating, high tables, window seats, low informal stages and gathering stairs — spaces for learners to congregate, connect and move between, says Randall Fielding, president of Fielding Nair International.

“If you want students’ attention, let them lean, move their arms and get out of their seats every 20 to 30 minutes, even if it’s for just a minute,” says Paul E. Kouri, AIA, architect at Dewberry. Some schools have started going “chairless” and furniture companies have pneumatic tables that allow students to sit or raise them for standing activities.

The “L”-shaped classroom has also gained much traction in recent years, allowing classrooms to incorporate a main gathering space and a smaller, adjacent breakout space. “This allows teachers to create different groups of students working on various types of activities, promoting movement and specialized instruction,” Kouri says.

Playground equipment has undergone changes and are “strategically designed to promote different types of physical activity, often also subconsciously teaching concepts related to physics such as cause/effect, balance, etc,” he adds.

Convenience and Obesity
Joel Sims, president of, says popular belief that “making things convenient directly relates to making them better” sometimes contributes to obesity.
He cites the example of design where a music room was placed at the end of a classroom wing to isolate sound and give students the option to walk to the facility. “The administration ultimately insisted that the music room must be moved closer to the school so that students could get there sooner!”

Limited choice of food and misconception about physical movement also contribute to obesity in schools. “In many schools, the choice of food is limited to the cafeteria and vending machines,” says Lippman.

“The lack of kitchen facilities or minimal kitchen facilities to prepare any fresh foods, or cook from scratch, also contributes to obesity,” says Anupama Joshi, director of the National Farm to School Network. Farm to School connects schools (K-12) and local farms to serve healthy meals in school cafeterias, improve nutrition, provide agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and support local and regional farmers.

Joshi adds that lack of outdoor learning spaces, such as school gardens, and absence of outdoor spaces for physical activity also contributes to obesity.

“Why are places created that limit activity in schools to peripheral engagement? Why are there not more elementary, middle and high schools programmed and planned where learners can be engaged in all senses? Why are we not creating places like kindergartens that are programmed and planned to support and motivate learning not only our five senses, but all our intelligences?” Lippman asks.

Fielding says schools still follow a traditional classroom set up where a teacher-led pedagogy encourages students to sit back and absorb information passively.

“Student-directed learners get out of their seats and pursue their passions, inquiry-based solutions and projects,” he says.

Tips on Creating Spaces That Help Curb Obesity
Fielding calls for integrating the planning and design process with educator, student and community involvement building a common understanding of 21st century “Creative Age” learning.

“Once a common understanding of holistic learning is developed, a fluid environment that supports movement will be embraced,” he explains.

Lippman urges a back to basics approach. Start with asking the question, “How do people learn?” he says. He encourages designers to create settings that support diverse ways that allow people to engage in different activities.

“Create places where learning is viewed as active and the learning environment is viewed as active. This means not only is the learner encouraged to become fully engaged in appropriate knowledge for themselves, but their learning environments, other learners and the physical environment must also be viewed as flexible. Flexibility in this scenario means the ability to adjust by the learners and physical environment to complete the task at hand.”

Designers should create spaces where learners can interact, access resources and personalize their settings, even for a brief period. He calls for an integrated setting where the spatial design has a variety of activity settings that expand and contract based on the activity at hand and needs of the learners.

Classrooms that have easy access to the outdoors promote a healthy engagement with nature. This in turn increases brain activity, and encourages movement and physical activity. “And who doesn’t enjoy having class outside?” asks Kouri.

Landscape architect Faye Harwell, FASLA, principal at Rhodeside & Harwell says, “An area of great interest is schoolyard gardening that includes edible plantings. Gardens with raised beds are becoming more and more popular, with the idea that students can learn about growing food and nutrition at the same time.”
“I’ve seen a school where each classroom opens out into a patch the kids use for gardening — this could be phenomenal change!” says Joshi.

Physical education spaces must be designed as “fun places to be.” “I would like to see a creative use of signage in schools that would help promote physical activity. An example would be, ‘Walking these stairs 20 times will burn XXX calories,'” says Kouri.

He cites a recent project where the school’s assistant principal is creating his own painted “super-graphics” depicting good habits, including instructions for good hygiene, such as “wash your hands.” The three-feet tall graphics will be located in restrooms.

Is Obesity a Serious Conversation Topic?

According to Kouri, obesity has not become a topic of general conversation specifically in school design. However, at a recent referendum for a high school, he notes that one community member spoke adamantly about preventing obesity. “This was the most important issue for him and he was pushing for a larger gym. I was impressed that he stood up for what he believed in and spoke openly about it.”

Lippman also said obesity is yet to become a topic of serious conversation. “The reason is that designers are focused on the aesthetics and adjacencies rather than on how people utilize spaces for physical activity.

“Generally, the questions about how spaces are used are limited and do not go beyond the basics of understanding the range of activities that occur in spaces.”

For Fielding, obesity is a topic of serious conversation among his clients in 33 countries worldwide. “Along with a focus on lifelong fitness for all students, over and above competitive athletics, most clients are emphasizing healthy food, healthy portion sizes and holistic, personalized learning that engage the minds, hearts, spirits and bodies of each student.”

Fielding cites an example of a school in Calgary that has no obese students. The Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, south of Calgary, employs a full-time outdoor learning coordinator who empowers all students to learn out on the land. An outdoor equipment facility has snowshoes, skis, backpacks and high-performance clothing so that every student is equipped to be active. “The measure of obesity is immediately visible — out of 670 students, there are no obese students!”

Cafeterias and Their Impact on Obesity
Most school cafeterias are oversized, says Fielding. “They are too large to foster comfort and basic human socialization — consequently, students are anxious and apt to shovel as much food in as quickly as possible.”

Cafeterias are not designed for students to enjoy food as a connecting social activity. Fielding urges schools to break up large institutional cafeterias into varied spaces similar to a good restaurant setting.

“Break cafeterias up as you would similar to a good restaurant with booth-like partial enclosures, level changes, varied lighting, color, materials, vistas to nature, street, student movement and acoustical qualities. Make eating a connecting, grounding activity and people will talk and learn more and gulp less.”

“Cafeterias that are well lit, bring in a lot of outdoor light and are appealing. There should be adequate space and design for fully functional kitchens,” suggests Joshi.

Simple redesign can change cafeterias to include a kitchen that offers students a variety of foods, says Lippman. “The cafeteria must be viewed as an instructional setting that reinforces, encourages and supports learning about a healthy diet,” he says.

Cafeterias are being designed for different age groups and are now bright, appealing environments, says Price Jepsen, AIA at STV Inc. “We also break them down into small group settings, unlike ganging several hundreds of children together. There are lots of schools being renovated with open campuses that give a lot of choices for older children; the goal is to offer interesting healthy food to keep them on campus and away from fast food. For example, boys and girls eat differently. We offer several options in cafeterias from salad bars to grab ‘n’ go lines so that students stay within the campus instead of relying on food outside. This promotes healthy eating, and a lot of this is driven through policy decisions.”

Kouri says his firm works with foodservice consultants and insists that cooking equipment such as fryers are not designed within the space. “We encourage the use of convection or steam ovens that are used to make healthier food.”

Affluence and Obesity
Fielding says obesity transcends economic boundaries but is worst in poor areas where parents often lack the knowledge and time to support high quality food. “Students can be introduced to healthy food, and they can educate their families and the movement becomes self-sustaining.

“We have all experienced kids that are influenced by a movie on industrial-style meat processing that come home and announce that they are becoming vegetarians. The same phenomenon applies to healthy eating in general; allow students to experience the delight of healthy food, and they will be our most effective change agents.”

According to Joshi, data across the board shows that lower income populations suffer from high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases due to lack of easy access to healthier food options in schools and outside in the community.

“Affluent communities are composed of people that are educated and aware of their choices. Given their education, they generally understand a healthy diet. Parents from these communities will also select schools that are good for their children’s learning experience,” says Lippman.

Kouri adds, “More affluent communities may have the funds to purchase more expensive fresh foods in most cases, but awareness and support for the issue of health and wellness exists in all communities.”

Many less affluent communities, he says place emphasis on nutrition and solid meals because they know their students may not be getting proper nutrition at home.

“On the other hand, it will be hard to sink in money for a fitness center for a school district that can’t afford books,” he adds.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents in the U.S. aged two to 19 years are obese. “There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence among U.S. children and adolescents. In 2007/2008, Hispanic boys, aged two to 19 years, were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls,” Joshi explains.

Sarat Pratapchandran can be reached through his website, Lettersnatcher.