OSU Extension toolkit has rural students stepping up their physical activity

Kathy Gunter is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the CPHHS

Children in rural Oregon elementary school classrooms—who are more at risk of becoming obese than their urban counterparts—are getting more physical activity when their teacher uses a toolkit developed by researchers with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

The results of a pilot study, published in the Journal of Extension, are borne out of a unique school-based approach to obesity prevention in six rural school districts, says Kathy Gunter, an OSU Extension Service physical activity specialist who developed the Balanced Energy Physical Activity Toolkit (BEPA-Toolkit).

“The good news is that children seem to accrue more health-promoting moderate to vigorous physical activity during the school day when teachers use the BEPA-Toolkit,” Kathy says.

The toolkit is geared toward elementary-school age children who are just beginning to learn about the importance of nutrition and exercise. Activities include “Activate the Alphabet,” “Bean Bag Balance,” “Dicey Moves” and “Fruit and Veggie Volleyball.” The games range from 5 to 20 minutes, with most being 15 minutes.

The toolkit includes activity cards, a user guide and video tutorials. In addition to instructions and talking points, the activities included in the handbook are embedded with health messages, providing more opportunities for children to practice being physically active.

OSU Extension distributed the BEPA-Toolkit to teachers in two rural elementary schools in each of three counties–Clackamas, Columbia, and Klamath. They tested implementation at two levels – “low support,” in which one toolkit was given to each grade in the school; and “high support,” in which every classroom received one.

In the high-support model, Extension offered a scripted presentation, hands-on activities and handouts to support teacher continuing education about classroom physical activity breaks, as well as wellness policies that emphasize school-based physical activity.

The teachers measured the children’s physical activity with pedometers. Children wore the pedometers for the entire school day, putting them on when they got to their classrooms in the morning and removing them before leaving at the end of the school day. They recorded their steps daily for four consecutive days.

OSU surveyed 75 teachers in the six schools about their usage of the BEPA-Toolkit and the children’s physical activity. Fifty-seven teachers completed the survey, and the final sample included physical activity data for 1,103 students.

Among the findings:

  • In the first, second and third-grade classrooms where the teachers regularly used the toolkit, boys took an average of 5,246 steps a day and girls took 4,456 steps. In those same grades where teachers never used the toolkit, boys averaged 4,801 steps and girls 4,097.
  • In the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, in classrooms where teachers regularly used the toolkit, boys averaged 6,384 steps a day and girls averaged 4,772. In the classrooms where the teachers never used the toolkit, boys averaged 4,920 daily steps and girls averaged 3,829.
  • Children in all grades in classrooms in which the teachers regularly used the toolkit averaged more minutes of total physical activity – light, moderate and vigorous – and more minutes of moderate and vigorous physical activity, than in the classrooms where the teachers never used the toolkit.

The toolkits were distributed through GROW Healthy Kids and Communities, a multi-state initiative led by OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences Extension Service. The toolkits have also been adopted by the OSU Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education Program (SNAP-ED) and are distributed and supported statewide in schools eligible for SNAP-ED programming.

From 2011 through 2016, GROW was implemented in Oregon and in five additional western states. In Oregon, county Extension offices supported GROW activities in partnership with the towns and elementary schools of Estacada, Molalla, Clatskanie, Rainier, Bonanza and Chiloquin.

“Current research shows that children are getting less than 20 minutes of health-promoting physical activity in a seven-hour school day,” Kathy says. “In the districts we studied, these kids are on the bus between 30 minutes to 1½ hours, so they don’t get very many opportunities for physical activity at home. They can’t take advantage of before- or after-school programs. We wanted to focus on the school environment.”

The study, and the GROW initiative, were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through its Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area.