Science & Research

Kids helping kids

Aboriginal youth mentors help children to be active

BY LIZ KATYNSKI
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2012

How do you encourage children to become more physically active? Dr. Joannie Halas believes part of the answer involves creating culturally relevant programs that promote a holistic approach to overall health. The Rec and Read program is a case in point.

Halas, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba, started the program 10 years ago as part of her research into how to engage Aboriginal youth in physical education and physical activity.

As a former school teacher, Halas knows that a meaningful physical activity program can be used to "connect" young people to their school environments. But through her research, she also knows that young people aren't always as physically active as they would like to be. In some cases, this is because they have a tough time fitting into the local community club or school sports scene. In other cases, it's because they can't afford the right equipment or clothing, or because they just don't feel welcome.

"What we found out is that some Aboriginal students weren't feeling connected in their physical education programs. They wanted to be more involved."

That's where Rec and Read comes into play. As Halas explains, the after-school physical activity, nutrition and education program for students Grades 4 to 6 is based on a circle of relationships. Students from the U of M's Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management work with high school students to create a program for the younger children at a nearby early-years school. "We call it a relationship-based communal approach to youth mentoring through physical activity. The university students are working with the high school students to run the after-school program, and they are all learning from each other in the program."

Together, they develop a program that features games and healthy snacks, and ensures all kids are able to participate.

This approach has two main benefits. First, the program is better suited to the needs and desires of the kids. Second, the structure of the program means the university students, many of whom will go on to become phys-ed teachers, are learning how to work interculturally with Aboriginal students.

The Aboriginal students, in turn, are learning leadership skills that may lead to a job or further education. That's important because education and employment are two key determinants of health.

In addition to encouraging kids to be physically active, the program also promotes cultural activities, such as sharing circles, as well as opportunities for the older mentors to read and play educational games that promote literacy with the younger kids.

"Because they have been in the gym, they build nice relationships through play and laughter, then they sit down and they do some reading one-on-one, and it just reinforces a very holistic approach to healthy development," she says. Since it was launched, Rec and Read has been adopted by 20 schools and continues to engage hundreds of children and youth each year.

Wave: November / December 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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