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Vaughan students' healthy habits live on in summer
July 2, 2015
Adam Martin-Robbins  

Ansia Sivakumaran used to while away the hours inside watching TV and snacking on potato chips.

But this summer she will be spending more time outdoors, whether it’s kicking a soccer ball with her brother or running around the local playground with her friends.

And on those occasions when Ansia does sit down to watch TV, the 11-year-old Forest Run Public School student crunches an apple instead of scarfing salty snacks.

“I (was) the kid who loves McDonald’s … and drinks iced tea all day,” she said. “Now, l’ve learned to drink water and have a good, balanced meal from the four food groups.”

Ansia says the transformation was spurred by the healthy schools program, led by Grade 6 teacher Kristina Spiteri, launched at Forest Run Public School about three years ago.

Under Spiteri’s leadership, and with the support of a group of student ambassadors, including Ansia, the school has launched a host of initiatives aimed at improving the health of both staff and students.

“When I first came to the school, we recognized that there was a gap in health and wellness being any kind of a focus. So we really recognized that as a need and we just sought to make some changes,” Spiteri said.

“We really wanted to incorporate it into a school improvement plan, so that was our first step. Once we committed to making it part of our school improvement plan, everything else kind of fell into place because now you’ve made a commitment to that.”

Some of the initiatives include hosting fun and innovative fitness challenges between classes and bringing in outside guests to introduce students to such things as yoga, meditation, Zumba and martial arts.

Beyond that, there’ has been rock climbing, dancercise, Wii Fit challenges, dance-a-thons, themed physical activity days such as Winter Olympics and Summer Olympics.

The program also focuses on healthy eating, so they deliver healthy snacks to each classroom and put free baskets of apples in all classes and offices.

The program leaders have also worked to ensure the mandated daily physical activity of 20 minutes is being followed.

And teachers were engaged in professional development about how to incorporate physical activities into their daily lesson plans, Spiteri said.

For instance, a math lesson could see students timing each other running a certain distance and then calculating how far they travelled per second.

“We just really wanted to encourage and foster an environment where staff and students felt that they were given a lot of opportunities to participate in different activities and we wanted to educate them about why it’s so important to be active and give them the tools they needed not just for now, but to take with them in life,” Spiteri said.

“And we just wanted them to be motivated and excited about coming to school every day and we thought active living was a part of that.”

Over the course of the last three years, a cultural shift has taken place at the school as a result of those efforts, Spiteri said.

It became really noticeable at the end of May when the school partnered with the City of Vaughan for Bike to School Week.

Most days, the kiss-and-ride at Forest Run is packed with cars as parents drop off and pick up their kids while the bike racks sit empty.

But during Bike to School week, the opposite happened, Spiteri said.

Participation built slowly at first, but over the course of the week, more and more bikes appeared on the racks while fewer and fewer cars passed through the kiss-and-ride, Spiteri said.

By midweek, the bike racks were full and locks were being attached to poles, trees, bollards and anywhere else around the school that space could be found, she said.

At the end of the week, more than 150 students, out of about 450, were biking to school and many more were roller blading, skateboarding or riding scooters to school.

Even more encouraging is that the number of students getting to school under their own steam has stayed fairly steady ever since, Spiteri said.

And it’s not just students who are embracing a healthier lifestyle, she added.

Principal Vincent Anania wanted to be a better role model for the students, so he has worked to drop 50 pounds in the past two years, Spiteri noted.

For Emily Lee, being one of the healthy school student ambassadors has motivated her to try new activities and to set a good example for her peers.

“It gives me a leadership role to be a role model to other students by being more active, so other students can look at me and think, ‘Wow. I should be healthy like that too,’” said the 12-year-old Grade 6 student.