Nature and Health –
Integrating PLAY into Wellness

Summer Blog Series
PLAY for Healthier Communities #2

“Nature and Health – Integrating PLAY into Wellness: Tips from a Registered Dietician and PE Teacher”

Who better to share tips on how play can promote student achievement and well-being than a former physical education (PE) teacher and a Registered Dietician (RD). Today, I’m excited to share ideas from two of my teammates, Courtney Hensch and Seth Shelby leading Healthier Generation’s school health work in South Carolina.

Daniel: My first question is for both of you, tell me a little about yourself and how play relates to your work in South Carolina.

Courtney: I live in Charleston and am an RD and a Clemson alum (go Tigers!). I have been working with schools and districts throughout South Carolina for about three and a half years to establish and sustain wellness policies and practices for their students, staff, and families.

Our work at Healthier Generation is all about helping schools create more opportunities for students to be exposed to nutrition and physical activity, so play naturally fits into our work! Comprehensive school wellness can be challenging, so adding play into wellness initiatives makes it more fun and keeps folks engaged. Because play strengthens cognitive function, helps with social and emotional development, and builds confidence, it’s an essential ingredient for developing strong educators.

Seth: Before working for Healthier Generation, I was a PE teacher in South Carolina public schools. Most of my teaching incorporated active play so students could strengthen their movement skills naturally through a designed activity. As a teacher, I loved participating in the games and demonstrating my love for activity with my students. I felt so fortunate to be in a profession that actively promoted me to play and encourage others to play. I would come home every day with nearly 20,000 steps and a big smile on my face. As I moved into my current position with Healthier Generation, I have had to reorganize how I approach the workday to include times for active play. I set aside time every hour to get some type of activity in, which might include walking the dogs, having a dance party, shooting some hoops, doing some disc golf putts, or playing with my son. These activity breaks are important for my brain to stay focused on what I am trying to accomplish for the day.

Seth playing disc golf as a family

Daniel: My second question is for Seth. As a father of a young child, why is play important to you and your family?

Seth: Playing is so incredibly important for my family. Since my son could walk, we have been on the go as a family. We live within a 1-mile radius of two city parks, and we take advantage of those resources every single day if the weather is nice. We play on the playgrounds, walk the trails looking for bugs and birds, play disc golf (he has quite the forehand), and go swimming and fishing in the river. My son doesn’t know another way of living other than being active. It is that exposure that will hopefully translate into a lifelong love of being active. As a dad, it is a great way for him to get energy out, but more importantly, it is a great way of bonding with him through play. I often find it is during our playtime we often have the most honest conversations; especially when he is learning something new and becomes frustrated. Allowing him space to fail at something while also being supportive and helping him work through those emotions positively is transformative for me as a dad.

Daniel: Courtney, the next question is for you. When we think of play, we typically think of physical activity. As an RD, how can play encourage healthy eating at home?

Courtney: There are so many ways to encourage playful learning in the kitchen. Here’s a quick checklist of ideas that families can try together.

  • Gardening: research shows that when kids help grow fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat more produce. Play in the garden teaches new skills, builds responsibility, independence, and self-esteem.
  • Cooking: if young children are involved in cooking, they are more likely to try new foods. I always have so much fun playing in the kitchen with my two-and-a-half-year-old niece. She loves making salad or mixing up eggs for breakfast. While she is playing it the kitchen, she develops curiosity, fine motor skills, and even math literacy while counting.
  • Games: make a game out of trying something new by closing your eyes and guessing the fruit or vegetable you’re tasting! My family likes to play “The High-Low Game” where we go around the table, and everyone shares their “high” (the best part of the day) and their “low” (the worst part of the day) – it always results in meaningful conversation.
Courtney playing with her niece

Daniel: Last question for both of you. As part of your work with Blue Cross Blue Shield Diabetes Free South Carolina, you provide training to educators. How do you bring play into these adult learning experiences?

Courtney: Often when we think of play our mind automatically goes to a child, but it is important to realize that play is for all ages! I always try to incorporate play into my workshops to show how simple it is to incorporate play into a classroom setting. It is rewarding to get educators moving and having fun while they are learning. I recently led a training for principals and had them play “Simon Says” during a break; by the end, we were all laughing, our moods were boosted, and everyone was engaged.

Seth: Some of the cornerstones of the framework we use to guide our work revolves around physical activity and physical education – a field of work that I have specialized in for almost 6 years. I couldn’t imagine guiding adults through our framework of best practices without incorporating play and activity. Just as it was in my physical education days, learning through play is such a powerful way to deliver content. As I move into developing workshops and events for the districts involved with Diabetes Free SC, I am exploring more dynamic ways to communicate and deliver information and opportunities. For example, I plan to work with PE professionals within the districts to record fitness challenges that can be done at home or after school for students, staff, and families.

Thank you to Courtney and Seth for sharing their experience and tips on how to integrate play into wellness initiatives. To learn more about Healthier Generation’s work in South Carolina, sign up for the Healthier Generation e-news or reach out to Courtney and Seth via LinkedIn.

About the Author: Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, where he manages technical assistance services and resources for out-of-school time sites as they work to achieve national standards for healthy eating and physical activity. Daniel oversees community-based and out-of-school partnerships at the Alliance.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics.  In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”