Hands up, I hated doing homework with my two kids. The interaction was laced with my own childhood resentment, bubbling up to the surface and meeting theirs, at tackling the obligatory ‘lessons’ at the end of an already full-on day.
I wanted them to go out and play. I wanted to play. Instead of wrestling with tears and copies rubbed so hard that the page was worn thin.
There were moments of fun of course, like when homework involved traipsing the countryside to find conkers or acorns to bring back to teacher; exploring the natural landscape with a new excitement, that met in a very real way, what they were learning on the page.
In my view homework, which is a bridge between the classroom and the home — the teacher, the child and the parent, is a perfect platform for sharing learning about practical health, such as the benefits of the colourful food pyramid, or how our breath can calm us down.
That is real stuff — about survival, and therefore should be compulsory.
On the survival front, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has placed our little nation at the forefront of an obesity tsunami, if we keep up our shockingly unhealthy lifestyle habits.
You don’t need to be a brain surgeon, as they say, to see the benefits of educating the future generation — schoolkids — and perhaps winning over their parents in the process, to stall that treacherous wave.
Could compulsory health-related homework, as part of the primary curriculum be the answer? Health psychologist, Professor David Hevey of TCD, believes so.
His recent research assessing an existing voluntary health homework programme established here in 2014, involving over 200,000 primary schoolkids, showed substantial gains in terms of children’s activity levels and improved nutrition.
One in three primary schools are participating in the Super Troopers with Laya Healthcare programme, which tackles wellbeing and nutrition, as well as physical activity.
Well, the proof is in the (healthy) pudding so. “There are knock-on positives for the parents and the wider family too,” says Prof Hevey.
“I think the learning from this research should be taken on board by policy makers and given consideration, if we’re serious about tackling childhood obesity and wellness in Ireland.”
Super Troopers has also offered an insightful keyhole peep into the negative lifestyle patterns we have developed in the home, what’s happening behind closed doors, so to speak.
Making a healthy lifestyle programme compulsory as homework, gets the whole family involved in a fun way and that’s how growth and change, through learning comes about.
For instance, would you spoon 9.25 spoonfuls of sugar into your child’s mouth as he or she heads off to school?
As you recoil in horror, it’s educating to realise that every 420ml bottle of flavoured water contains that amount — that’s three times a child’s recommended sugar intake per day.
Yet, the Super Troopers programme research showed that one in four kids were drinking fruit flavoured water five days a week. No doubt, well-intentioned parents gave their children these, instead of unhealthy fizzy drinks, thinking they were a better option.
Isn’t it better to have that knowledge though? To stop and examine what we are putting into our bodies as fuel; to grasp the importance of moving our limbs, and to find words to express how we are feeling?
If children learn that self-insight from an early age through compulsory health-related homework then we are giving them a gift for the future and perhaps through that practical education saving some of their parents from making that WHO statistic a reality.
The recent spell of good weather, coupled with the fact that the end of the school year is fast approaching and homework levels are rapidly dwindling means that most children have had the opportunity to spend more time outdoors than usual.
Seeing the many positive effects that all this time spent outdoors has had on my own children, and ignoring the red Irish tan marks that one or two of them are sporting, thanks to my inadequately-applied sun protection, it seems at first glance that the recent study which recommended compulsory health homework in primary school is a no brainer. Looking after our children’s physical and mental health is a priority for most parents. But is compulsory health homework really the answer?
There have been documentaries about hidden sugars and what really goes into the food we eat and, for a period after each, it’s easy to spot the people who have taken it all on board. They can be found in supermarket aisles, examining the ingredients of typical cupboard staples. They can be found in the dairy aisles, comparing sugar content in previously considered healthy options. And they are me, examining the fruit juices, knowing they are not as great an alternative to fizzy drinks as they might sound.
Ireland remains on course to be the fattest nation in Europe by 2030. A dubious honour — but it’s not lack of education that is keeping us on target, rather lack of time.
Many parents are already aware that their children don’t do enough exercise and spend too much time in front of screens. Many parents are aware that they don’t always make the best choices when it comes to food and drink for their children. But sometimes, because of time constraints, convenience and the idea of one less battle, wins.
As a society, we are very time poor and I believe that lack of time is a significant factor behind many of the unhealthy habits that have crept into typical family life.
Many homes have two working parents and at the end of a long working day and commute, having the time to fit in everything is near impossible.
Our family, nearly always eat dinner together, something which is said to promote good eating habits. We do it because we can, but not all work and life patterns allow for that, regardless of whether it’s best practice.
The long bright evenings make getting outdoors a real possibility in the summer months. The winter, however, is a different story. I’m lucky, my work pattern means I’m home when my children arrive in from school. For other parents however, who arrive home later — by the time usual homework is completed, dinner is prepared and eaten, and everything is organised for the next working/school day, it’s too late, cold or wet for outdoor adventures.
Teaching children about healthy eating habits, about looking after their mental health and about the importance of and engaging in exercise, is a wonderful idea. After all, ‘Your health is your wealth’ but having the time to realistically fit it in, in the very different form that compulsory health homework would need to take, alongside their usual homework, is a different story.
Perhaps making in-depth health lessons a formal part of the curriculum at school, is the better approach. It might place the necessary emphasis on the importance of looking after our children’s physical and mental health. It certainly deserves just as much consideration as academics.
As part of the curriculum, the lessons would definitely occur and the increased physical activity could really happen, rather than potentially being a rushed job at home, merely ticking boxes.
Or, failing that, perhaps health homework could replace the usual evening slog of maths, Irish and projects. There are only so many hours in the day — and good intentions can’t alter that.
- See our Feelgood supplement tomorrow for more