Childhood Obesity: The Role of Primary Schools

Childhood obesity is a problem in society like any other, although it is not just a passive epidemic. Like most issues there is a cause and effect relationship. Over the course of a child’s life between 4 and 12 years of age, a child spends most of his/her time in primary school. In Ireland children know next to nothing about the importance of healthy eating and the nutritional value of everyday food. Why? Because it is not on the curriculum to teach children about nutrition and exercise. Other than their home environment the only other place to learn about the importance of healthy eating is school.  Yet there is still a lack of awareness on healthy living and the importance of it for a person’s first nine years of education.

Educating

The NCCA also found that in a study carried out by the Irish National Teachers Organisation that 72 per cent of teachers said that they spent more time on maths and language subjects than others such as SPHE. This is due to a curriculum overload and the teachers feeling they must prioritise the “important subjects” such as maths and english. This results in subjects such as SPHE and PE where children learn to look after their minds and bodies properly not being prioritised.

P.E. Priority

P.E. gives children an opportunity to try their hand at sport in a relaxed and easy environment. It can be argued that primary schools should be spending more time on the subject and the importance of it. The subject of Religion for example, is taught every day in primary schools, whereas P.E. is usually a once week affair. Should physical education not be more important? Perhaps more focus should be placed on sports and other physical activities to help tackle this obesity crisis.

According to the Proceedings of Consultative Conference on Education in 2007, Physical Education provides children with the knowledge, skills and understanding necessary to perform a variety of physical activities and maintain physical fitness. It helps children to value as well as enjoy physical activity as an ongoing part of a healthy lifestyle. In an era in which childhood and adult obesity is on the rise across Europe, PE and a healthy eating lifestyle have the combined potential to make a positive lifestyle change for all.

Nutrition

There is also a severe lack of nutritional education in primary schools. Food and nutritional education is taught mainly through SPHE, which normally constitutes one or two hours a week. An NCCA report published in 2016 stated that there have been calls to restructure the primary school curriculum to allow more time for SPHE and subjects that teach children about the world around them and how to look after themselves properly. However, that is yet to be implemented.

Although there are some healthy eating schemes in place in Irish primary schools such as Bord Bia’s “Food Dudes” programme, which encourages children to eat more fruit and vegetables throughout the day, they are optional to the children who would in most cases prefer to eat a chocolate bar than slices of pepper or tomatoes.  A Life skills report by the Department of Education and Skills also found that only two per cent of Irish primary schools have on site facilities to buy fruit for lunch. There is not enough of a drive to teach kids about what they put into their bodies and how important physical exercise is.

After-School Activities

Childhood obesity is a very real medical condition that is affecting children and adolescents across Ireland. Children who are consuming high calorie food and drink, and who are not getting enough exercise to counteract and burn off these calories, have proven more likely to gain excess weight. According to the Health Service Executive at least one in five children are overweight or obese. Studies also show that across all ages, it is more girls than boys who are overweight. Is this because boys are expected to play sports? Are they encouraged more than girls to partake in such activities?

In Ireland around 6% of children are overweight with obesity seemingly to only increase as they age. Studies show that girls are more likely to be overweight than boys, taking in the factors of diets, sedentary behaviours, socioeconomic circumstances and indeed physical activities. From my own experience, boys in my primary school were always encouraged to play rugby, hurling, football or other sports after school. None of it was organised by the school itself but it was highly recommended to do so. Girls on the other hand, were encouraged to do drama or music. Although these are important and useful lessons for children to undertake they are not always overly beneficial to their physical health. The only afterschool activity ever organised by the school was dingy sailing once a week, for the month of June which was not the most vigorous of sports when compared to rugby.

The primary school educational system does not do a huge amount to prevent childhood obesity. With the lack of emphasis on nutrition nearly acting as a tool for obesity in children, there is not enough awareness about the effects poor eating habits can have on one’s health. Combining this with a lack of exercise, these children have a greater chance of carrying their obesity with them into adulthood. Irish primary schools need to place more emphasis on physical activities and more attention needs to be paid towards the benefits of physical health and healthy eating in primary schools. This combined with educating the children and indeed their parents on the harmful effects of unhealthy eating, is the key for significantly reducing childhood obesity.


Isabel Hanly, Laura Brien, Jeanluc Uddoh and Ambere McCabe

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