Getting creative to combat obesity

Kids play with a parachute Friday while at an after-school program provided by the Crystal Lake Park District at Woods Creek Elementary School in Crystal Lake.
Kids play with a parachute Friday while at an after-school program provided by the Crystal Lake Park District at Woods Creek Elementary School in Crystal Lake.

When it comes to keeping kids active during the winter, experts agree that success comes by getting creative.

Too cold to go outside? Bring the snow inside to play with, suggested Diana Vroman, the director of Grand Oaks Child Care.

Parents also can cook with their kids or play games such as hide-and-seek or hopscotch, Vroman said. They can use pots and pans to pretend they’re in a marching band, or use cushions to make a fort – all activities that get kids using their large motor skills.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled during the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The trend seems to have slowed at least in Illinois, where the number of high school students who are obese has hovered around 12 percent since 2009.

Area programs designed to combat childhood obesity focus on healthy eating and getting kids active.

Kathy Varrassi, a site supervisor for the extended time program at Canterbury and Coventry elementary schools in Crystal Lake, said finding an activity to engage youngsters is a matter of knowing the age group and being able to mix things up.

“A lot of times you can take an old theme and modern it up,” said Varrassi, recommending that parents search the Internet to find teaching and child care websites that provide ideas.

Park districts and school districts have been using Community Access To Child Health, or CATCH, grant dollars to fund programs designed to teach kids how to be healthy.

A calendar is sent home to families to provide different activities for kids to do each day, said Meaghan Haak, health promotion coordinator with the McHenry County Department of Health.

The December calendar, for example, recommended that kids drink two glasses of milk Dec. 1, not watch TV on Dec. 2 and play tag Dec. 3.

Another grant, called We Choose Health, was awarded in August. As part of the four-year initiative, the county plans on setting up joint-use agreements to give families not involved in structured activities a place to go, Haak said.

“There are a lot of working parents,” she said. “They don’t have as much time. ... If we offer more opportunities, then maybe more people will take advantage of it.”

Jay Fuller, a physical education teacher at Dean Street and Westwood elementary schools in Woodstock, advises his students – mostly first- through fifth-graders – to ask their parents to take them outside or to a park if they don’t have a yard.

“When your parents get home, if you ask your parents to go outside and play with you, most parents will do something with them,” he said, adding that some parents don’t offer because they don’t think the kids want to go.

And more programs are trying to be flexible.

Crystal Lake Park District, which operates Grand Oaks Child Care, started offering punch passes a few months ago, so parents can choose which days to use the program.

Not everybody works the same days every week, Vroman said. Her husband, Fred Vroman, works construction and sometimes works in spurts.

It’s also about setting a good example, she and Fuller said.

Vroman recommended that parents eat the foods they’re trying to get their kids to eat, and Fuller added that the advice goes for exercise, too.

“A lot of it comes from the parent,” Fuller said. “If the parents come home and sit down and don’t do anything, then guess what, [the kids] don’t do anything, either.”

Activity ideas

• Using the TV show “Minute to Win It” as inspiration, Kathy Varrassi of the Crystal Lake Park District recommended challenging kids to do all sorts of activities and challenge their own times.

• Use the child’s interests as a starting point, Grand Oaks Child Care director Diana Vroman said. If the child likes race cars, have him or her pretend to be a racecar and run around. Dinosaurs more their thing? Go on a dino hunt, Vroman said.

• As one of seven siblings, physical education teacher Jay Fuller spent a lot of time outside during the winter when he was growing up. He said it’s good to get outside and recommended taking the dog for a walk, sledding or even – as he and his siblings did – building a makeshift ice rink in the backyard.

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