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With childhood obesity rates on the rise, schools are going all out to encourage students to become more active and make healthier food choices. Some have added standing desks; others have revamped their cafeteria menus. In Dillwyn, Virginia, the educators have gone one step further - They have designed a school that incorporates movement and healthy eating.
In 2010, the educators at this rural Buckingham County town were presented with the rare opportunity to transform two former high and middle school buildings into a modern, state-of-the-art learning facility for K-5 students. To help them in their efforts to create an environmentally friendly structure, they approached VMDO Architects, the leaders in designing green schools.
However for this project, the architects wanted to take the idea of green schools one step further. They wanted to test if they could use smart design to tackle student obesity. The intrigued school officials agreed and what could be the prototype for the next generation of "active" green schools was born.
So what is so different about the new and improved Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School that opened its doors in 2013? At first sight, it appears to be just like any other school with a beautiful well-lit campus. However, look closer and you will notice that the students are always on the move.
Within the classrooms, they are wriggling on the flexible stools. During breaks, they are seen heading to the popular shared spaces using the monumental lobby stairs that feature handrails painted in fun kid-friendly colors.
And don't be surprised if you find students dashing out for a 10-minute physical activity break between classrooms or see them in dedicated learning centers throughout the hallways and around the 15-acre school grounds. That's just part of VMDO's design strategy to keep the students moving.
But as we all know, physical activity alone is not enough - food intake is as important. However, instead of forcing them with a "healthy" menu, the kids are coaxed into making better choices.
The well-lit cafeteria that features an open kitchen and bakery allows students to observe the food as it is being prepared. Healthy options like salad bars and other nutritious food choices placed at students' eye level as they move through the checkout line, encourages them to make better decisions. There are also no vending or soda machines to be found. Instead, students can quench their thirst using one of the numerous water fountains that are prominently featured throughout the school.
A teaching kitchen allows kids to experiment with different recipes while a working lab enables them to conduct food science experiments. There is also a massive school garden where students and even family members can tend to vegetables together. The school walls are plastered with colorful posters that encourage kids to keep moving and even jumping on the school's stairwells.
So is VMDO's innovative school design working? The results of a two-year study to assess its impact on the student's health are not out yet. But anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers seems to suggest that the kids appear to be a lot happier.
Of course, not many schools can retrofit their buildings. However, many are starting to adopt the "Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture" developed by the multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and educators for the Buckingham project.
VMDO architect Dina Sorensen, who spearheaded the pilot program believes this is an important first step. Simply changing the menu, which is what many schools have done is not enough to create better eating habits. Instead, she believes that "the key is for architects to work with multidisciplinary teams since a single group or solution on its own likely can't make enough of a change in health." As we have often heard, "It Takes a Village"!