Luring kids away from their video games for an entire week to learn healthier lifestyle habits can be a challenge — unless they’re going to a fun-filled camp with their peers.
Summer camp is a new twist for HealthWorks!, which provides innovative programs to help overweight young people and their families improve their eating habits and become more physically active. Adding summer camp is a new milestone in the Cincinnati Children’s program’s 11-year, groundbreaking history.
In June, 50 children between the ages of 9 and 13 who were already enrolled in HealthWorks! spent a full week at sleep-away camp at Camp Joy Outdoor Education Center in Clarksville, Ohio. The goal was to immerse them in a fun, supportive environment that promoted better eating habits and exercise. No one was forced to do anything he or she didn’t want to do. Instead, campers were encouraged to make choices outside their comfort zone.
This summer camp was really a place for these kids to shine and gain self-confidence: one girl said it was the first time she’d been swimming in over two years; another child stood before her peers and sang a cappella; the rope obstacle course was a major attraction, as were archery, canoeing and evening dances. It was amazing to see how engaged the kids were in back-to-back activities and how freely they expressed themselves in this environment.
Nutritional education was also done through a number of fun and motivating means, including taste testings, games and reward-based crafts. Some were introduced to fruits and vegetables they’d never heard of, and measuring cups were used by each child at meals to help with portion control.
The kids also created their own portion-control plates that they decorated using different marker colors to reinforce that half the plate is made up of fruits and vegetables, while the other half is divided in two, one part for grains and the other for meats and other high-protein foods. This personalized plate, along with a set of measuring cups, was part of a take-home bag each family received at the end of camp so that each child could continue at home what he learned at camp.
Camp Joy was a remarkable and life-changing experience for most of the campers. Rather than focus too heavily on the numbers, they were able to explore new ways of healthy living – and by doing this, the weight loss should follow naturally. It was also a way for us to get to know our patient population in a more personal way that isn’t always possible in a counseling session.
Some of the parents are already talking about starting a fundraiser and HealthWorks! is committed to doing the summer camp again and a long-weekend, family camp in the spring. Older campers who want to come back next year as counselors-in-training were told that they need to continue to show progress in order to be great role models for the next group of kids.
We can’t wait to see what they’ll accomplish in the coming year!
Shelley Kirk, PhD, RD, LD is the director of HealthWorks! and a staff member of the Comprehensive Weight Management Center at Cincinnati Children’s. Dr. Kirk’s research focuses are on developing effective interventions for overweight and obese children and adolescents.