Last week, the U.S. Surgeon General called on our nation to better support walking and walkability as a fundamental health strategy. Speakers noted that walking is a basic human right and a civil rights issue. I strongly agree, having been with advocates in poverty-stricken neighborhoods as they described how their children have to cross dangerous streets, avoid gangs and even packs of wild dogs on their way to school. This is unacceptable. As children are getting back into the rhythm of school this month, getting there should be a fun and healthy experience for every child.
One of the five strategic goals of the call to action is to make walking a national priority. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy noted that communities need to make it safe and easy to walk and wheelchair roll. Many communities have embraced this view and some have made significant improvements in just five years, as one of our resources, Growing a Movement, shows. However, this work still hasn’t permeated our culture.
Ensuring that every child can safely walk everywhere would be an incredible game changer. What’s more, just stand by any playground for one minute: clearly, children need lots of movement. We must ensure that wherever they walk, there are also opportunities to keep moving. And exercise is only one part of the health equation. We also need to design communities to ensure easy access to affordable healthy food.
How? It could begin with schools. Already, 28 states have laws requiring schools to make playgrounds and gyms available for community use. That’s a great start, if implemented well. In addition, school meals have gotten substantially healthier since higher government standards went into effect in 2012. Farm to school grants are helping increase vegetable and fruit offerings at school while also providing new market opportunities for farmers.
Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, Assistant Professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia, worked with Dr. Terry Huang, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, to redesign Buckingham Elementary School in Dillwyn, Virginia, as a pilot architectural project to increase healthy food consumption and encourage physical activity. “A kid is a kinetic, excited entity,” said Trowbridge, who noted that many of the design decisions made, including the furniture choices, were meant to let children move. In other locations, standing desks are being tested at schools. (For a deeper dive, here are two toolkits for active design and healthy eating design in schools.)
Could all public buildings support healthy children? As common gathering places, libraries could be designed to integrate movement with reading nooks that include dynamic furniture like the rocking stools used at Buckingham Elementary School. Outdoor and indoor play areas, as well as learning gardens, could be included, and even the art surrounding buildings could encourage exploration and learning for children. For example, a textile artist in Japan and her husband developed the concept of play sculptures, beginning with a project for a national park in Tokyo.
As noted in an earlier blog, partnerships could also be formed with organizations like the Coin Laundry Association so that laundromats offered play areas for children who are waiting with their parents. Healthy vending options could also be offered. And what about designing parklets near bus stops?
I’d love to see public health professionals partner with students in technology, industrial design, architecture, urban design, sculpture and functional art to think of many more creative ways to incorporate activity and healthy eating into the daily environments of kids. Let’s #StepItUp and make healthy places for children our national norm.