Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FitCity: Little Explorers: A Healthy School

If you ask Lori Lorenz, owner and director of Little Explorers Preschool (and Kindergarten), how she came to have a school that offered a well rounded curriculum that incorporated healthy eating and a focus on the physical-cognitive connection, she’ll tell you it happened by accident.

When Lori started her school, she focused on finding the best teachers for a 3 year old classroom, a 4 year old pre-K classroom, and a Kindergarten teacher.  She developed curriculums and philosophies that the school would be based on.  She created a learning environment that would cater to part time students and parents as well as care for children and parents who needed all day care.  She carefully selected a location and designed a space that encouraged learning and playfulness. 

Little Explorers is a private preschool and Kindergarten in Fishers, located near 116th and Brook School Rd.   When my husband and I decided it was time for our daughter to move from an in home care situation to a preschool, we searched and visited and interviewed a wide variety of schools.  We looked at church based programs, Montessori, private preschools, chain preschools.  We were very careful in our selection of Little Explorers as the place for our children to begin their educational foundation.

This is Little Explorers’ third year in full operation.  This year, thanks to a new school cook and a new program discovered by the Kindergarten teacher, Little Explorers has rounded out the curriculum for all students to focus on a well-rounded child in terms of education and health.

Initially, the school was not focused on the food served to the children.  Running a quality school means making a lot of choices.  The food served wasn’t on the top of the list.  The menu consisted primarily of frozen and canned foods.  Chicken nuggets, burgers, fries, canned vegetables, canned mixed fruit.  This year, that all changed when the school hired a whole foods chef- Ms. Satch Cole. 

Satch is dedicated to feeding kids food that is prepared by hand.  She has updated the school’s menu and continues to work on removing all high fructose corn syrup products, all canned fruits and veggies, and she prepares the school’s main meal- lunch- each day.  She has updated the menu to eliminate processed meat and cheese.  The only foods that still have high fructose corn syrup are ketchup and jelly (hard to buy healthy versions of these items in bulk).  She is learning what menu items work well with the kids and what menu items don’t work logistically.  For example, roasted chicken legs sound great- until you have a classroom full of kids who won’t eat the chicken off the bone and you have to remove the meat from 50+ chicken legs.  Each day, the kids are served fresh fruit and veggies that are either fresh or frozen.  Main courses include meatballs, homemade chicken and noodles, and beef stew.

In addition to the change from processed to whole foods, Satch has updated the way the kids eat with a focus on sustainability for our environment.  I think any parent can understand that taking the easy road is often the most appealing choice.  I know that I’ve had to survive some weeks by living off of paper plates and plastic cutlery.  Until this year, Little Explorers has been serving all snacks and meals with disposable dishes and cutlery.  Satch, with her dedication to sustainability, brought in lunch trays, cups, silverware, and serving dishes.  The kids eat family style in their classrooms instead of being served individual plates. 

Lori has seen the changes as a very positive thing for the school.  She says that children who previously were packing lunch each day are now eating the school lunch because the options are healthier.  She has also been amazed at how well the kids have responded to the food.  Lori says that the one thing she has really learned is that we tend to not give kids enough credit when it comes to food.  We assume that kids won’t like vegetables that are too different or unfamiliar.  We assume that they only want nuggets and fries.  When Satch first put beef stew on the menu, Lori couldn’t imagine the kids eating it.  But it’s become a favorite meal!  Recently, Satch served fried cabbage.  At first, most of the kids turned up their noses.  When encouraged to try it, the feedback was positive (it’s like warm salad!”).

In addition, the budget has not taken a big hit.  That’s right!  According to Lori, they expected there would be an significant increase in the cost of food.   However, there is far less waste and Satch is very skilled at knowing where to buy produce at the best price and how to make the produce last the longest.  For example, serving bananas on Monday and then using bananas to make banana bread from the leftover fruit later in the week.  At this early stage in the school year, the budget has seen only a small increase.  I’ll be interested to see where things stand later in the year when they no longer have to buy styrofoam plates and such every week.  In addition, as the school year hits a nice rhythm and Satch figures out which menu items work best, I’m thinking that things will scale down a bit from where they are now.
The other new thing introduced this year is a program that Kindergarten teacher Ms. Sally Lamping is utilizing called The Maze.  As Sally explained it to me, most learning processes in the classroom don’t work together in the brain but the Maze activities create learning opportunities that make both sides of the brain work together.  The school year is only a few weeks old and Sally reports that she is already seeing benefits as the children are more focused in the mornings.  The Maze is the second thing they do each day.  I was very intrigued by this program but also confused about how it worked and what the children actually did.  I was very excited to have an opportunity to go into the classroom and see it in action.

The Maze is designed to build in difficulty from month to month.  For example, they children will spend a month doing an exercise where they walk on a blue tape strip on the floor.  The next month, that blue tape is replaced by a board on the floor.  The next month, the board is replaced by an actual balance beam.  Every few weeks, the course of The Maze gets updated with different activities.  On the day I was there to observe, the children were doing Jelly Rolls, Walk The Line, Over the Rainbow, Under the Rainbow, Eye Tracking, and Push the Wall. 

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the classroom was during The Maze.  It isn’t a free for all activity course.  The kids go one after the other through each station.  Before they begin, Sally reviews what exercises they will be doing and how they do each one.  She reminds them of the rules- to concentrate and no talking. 

I watched my daughter lay on the floor and roll from one side of the carpet to the next.

Then she came to the Walk the Line- blue tape on the floor that she walked “heel toe, heel toe.”  Since my visit, the directions for Walk the Line have changed and the children now stand to the side and walk sideways down the line with just their toes on the tape.

For Over and Under the Rainbow, the children go over, without touching, a curved foam noodle.  Then they go under a curved foam noodle.

In Eye Tracking, one by one, each child gets face time with Sally and an object that they are asked to track with only their eyes.  Don’t move your head, only your eyes.

Finally, the children lined up and headed into the hallway for Push the Wall.  They faced the wall, put their hands up, and pushed as hard as they could for a 10 second count.

In addition to this new program, the school has plenty of physical playtime built into the daily schedule.  There is a great outdoor play area and playset.  The teachers and staff interact with the kids outside, encouraging them to play with a parachute attached to the fence or to play catch or play with hula hoops.  Extra activities are offered for an additional fee- dance class and a mobile gymnastics class. 

There is a trend in schools these days and I hope you’ve seen it in your area.  Our public school district made drastic changes to their food program this year.  No fried foods in the elementary schools, no additional charge for an extra serving of real vegetables (not french fries), eliminating high fructose corn syrup, eliminating processed foods. 

I know that the responsibility for the health and well being of our kids truly rides on the shoulders of the parents.  As a mom, I am striving to keep my kids active and to offer healthy choices and to teach them about sugary junk food versus healthy fruits and vegetables.  However, if I’m giving my kids all the healthy messages and they go to school and are surrounded by sugary milk and syrupy fruit and deep fried meat and potatoes, my authority on the subject is undermined.  For years, one of the main concerns I heard coming out of schools was that there wasn’t consistency between school and home.  They wanted parental involvement and communication.  I like seeing that schools are going the other way, too.  Taking the lead on instilling healthy values in our children is a priority and hopefully it’s a priority that is growing across the country.

I plan to go back and visit Little Explorers again in the middle of the school year.  I’m interested to see what Satch and Sally and Lori will tell me about any changes in behavior or cognitive development that they feel is related to the changes in the school’s healthy values this year.  Will the children be more focused?  Will the children have fewer behavior problems?  Will there be a child that they see drastic improvements in?  What are the benefits we haven’t thought of yet?  What are the struggles that still need to be answered?

How about you and your school or daycare?  How health focused is the environment that you send your children into when they aren’t at home?  How much influence do you have to make improvements?


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