Public Health Strategies: Enlisting a New Generation

“It is among the commonplaces of education that we often first cut off the living root and then try to replace its natural functions by artificial means. Thus we suppress the child’s curiosity and then when he lacks a natural interest in learning, he is offered special coaching for his scholastic difficulties.” – Alice Miller

If you have never watched a child draw or sculpt her dream playground, you should. It’ll awaken your imagination. Underground tunnels, mountains with slides arcing from their peaks, rope webs that reach higher than the Empire State Building. At KaBOOM!, every community-build playground project includes this activity, on the principle that children’s investment in and ownership of their playspace will multiply if they actually have a say in its creation.

Doesn’t the same hold true of efforts to fight childhood obesity? According to the latest report from Trust for America’s Health, childhood obesity is over 20 percent in eight U.S. states and Washington, DC. (1) That statistic is sad and scary, and the involvement of children and youth in efforts to bring it down will multiply those efforts’ strength and sustainability.

To that end, service learning presents an amazing opportunity to include children and youth in efforts to deal with the public health crises that are obesity and the play deficit, with all their attendant consequences for physical, social-emotional, and cognitive health and well-being. Imagine a youth corps dedicated to organizing play days in neighborhood parks. Or one determined to change a food culture that values speed and quantity by holding weekly potlucks where food served comes from local farms and is cooked by youth. Or another that mounts a recess advocacy campaign at a local elementary school or creates exercise videos to share with classmates, recording how many classes watch them and watch actions the videos inspire them to take.

These things are happening across the country. For example, the Food Education Empowerment and Sustainability Team (FEEST) is a youth-run program in Seattle in which participants “kick it in the kitchen, prepare a delicious and healthy meal, and then eat all together family-style while learning more about food in [their] communities.” (2)  According to a blog post from a teenager, Tom, a FEEST gathering was “the best time I had all week.” Watch this recess plea from kids in Long Beach, CA. (3) These kids are having fun, and they are in charge of things.

When I read about efforts to fight childhood obesity, I read a lot about “physical activity.” It is the obesity-related buzz phrase in public health, parks and recreation, and education. But I have never once heard a child say, “Can I go out and be physically active, Mom?” I laud the innovative obesity-fighting and obesity prevention initiatives being implemented in thousands of schools, parks, and community organizations. But I sometimes wonder if these discussions are missing a little joy, a little fun, a little something to better capture the imaginations of children and youth. By giving children and youth power, we encourage them to dream up initiatives in which they’ll want to be involved. Youth Service America highlights many youth engaged directly in the fight against childhood obesity in the UnitedHealth HEROES program and in their guide, “First Responders: Youth Addressing Childhood Obesity through Service Learning.” (4) The solutions profiled are varied, community-specific, and filled with ideas.

Encouraging more programs of this nature emboldens youth and communities to think outside of the box in addressing their needs. Casting the net widely in looking for inspiration also fosters creative thinking. Imagine pairing the whimsy of groups participating in the Levity Project, with their flash mobs of people on exercise balls, with the weighty goals of the National Physical Activity Plan. (5, 6) Think of asking groups of young people, “How do you like to play?” and then working with them and their answers to make that play happen.

Our attempts to define physical activity for children and youth, and the way we talk about physical activity, might actually work against us.  Similarly, emphasis on sports as the only way to get youth physically active might be a too-narrow solution to a wider problem that need be addressed on a social or cultural level. Where’s the role of fun, friendship, and play in discussions of calories, weight, nutrients, and activity level?

Service learning or experiential learning programs provide unique opportunities to convene young people around these discussions of play and physical and mental health. In the same way that children dream up their most-desired playgrounds, young people can dream up ways to build play back into their schools, homes, and neighborhoods. Given a voice, young people are more apt to act, become involved in their communities, and show enhanced problem-solving skills, as multiple studies on civic engagement demonstrate. (7)

Adventure playgrounds of the U.K. operate on these principles of self-determination, providing spaces in which children and youth construct as they see fit.(8)  The actual space and the play structures within them are built and modified by young people over the course of a season. They are in control. The result? According to playworker Penny Wilson, youth are frequent visitors to these playgrounds – and at a rate that I think would surprise most Americans, who view playgrounds as the realm of the young child.

Certainly, I’m not advocating making the whim of every child and young person a reality. Neither can we, when involved in a community-build playspace, make a child’s dream of a 7,000-foot mountain with a protruding slide a reality. But we can figure out how to translate that desire into a resembling reality: a good tall place to climb on a playground, with a thrilling, just-steep-enough slide to race down.

What desires have you heard voiced from young people regarding getting moving and playing? What models have you seen in evidence? Many exist – but the final question we must ask ourselves is, are we truly listening? When we take time to acknowledge the value in what our children are telling us and when we hold up innovative ideas to the light for others to see, we give permission for those we are trying to impact to join the conversation, catalyzing the creation of a multitude of new ideas.


1.    Trusts for America’s Health. (2011, July). F as in fat 2011: How obesity threatens America’s future. Retrieved from
2.    Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team. Retrieved from
3.    Lee, F. (2010, November 11). Kids advocating for kids: More recess! Retrieved from
5.    The Levity Project. (2010, December 16). Flash mob. Retrieved from
6.    National Physical Activity Plan. Retrieved from
7.    Roehlkepartain, E. C. Benefits of community-based service learning. (2007, December). Search Institute. Retrieved from National Service-Learning Clearinghouse website:
8.    Conway, M. (2009, April). Developing an adventure playground: The essential elements. Retrieved from


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One Response to Public Health Strategies: Enlisting a New Generation

  1. D. Robinowitz

    Great idea and money well spent. More efforts like this are needed to lower future health care costs in America.

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