In its simplest definition, whole health learning is the means to educate students so that they understand the factors that influence personal, family, community and social health and vitality and so that they come to value the skills to manage their own health as they grow and mature after secondary school.
Ultimately this will be a very extended process, as each school, district, and educational jurisdiction determines where along the continuum of whole health learning they currently reside and where they want to be. As a starting point, we are drawn to the group of activities that we refer to as:
These activities form the basis for what we call whole health wellness studies that blend core academic subjects with experiential learning activities that have been shown to improve health, fitness, cognition, social and emotional skills and academic performance. (A first model was adopted at Lakeside Middle School in Millville, NJ for its second semester of 2019. The initial description is here.)
- As a formal practice or activity, each is led by innovators in national and regional settings; each is informed by an established knowledge and evidence base; each is creating networks of practitioners and collaborators; many have developed curricula aligned with academic standards, and all have attained modest if uncertain places in schools.
- While most wellness programs can or are required to show positive impacts on academic performance, very few involve capturing and analyzing health knowledge data, especially across a student’s full K-12 experience.
- That is because in part where school wellness activities do exist, and the country is blessed with exemplars, once students move out of the grade cluster where such programs are in place, say at 4th or 5th grades, there are few links that carry forward to the next level. And very few schools offer multiple wellness programs, as core or after-school programs.
- These school-centered wellness programs are reflected in concurrent movements elsewhere in society that encourage better health and wellbeing: green buildings, personal fitness activities and technology, clean energy, improved food production and use, MD prescriptions for farmer’s market produce and time outdoors, and in 2018 wellness programs offered by YMCAs, and integrative, functional and lifestyle medicine.
- In parallel with the emergence of these multi-faceted grassroots innovations, state and national agencies and non-profits have established programs focused primarily on nutrition and exercise to address childhood obesity.
- The emergence of the Social & Emotional Learning, SEL, framework presents the potential for supporting its goals through the inherent collaborative and social qualities of whole health learning activities.
These trends reinforce the growing understanding that childhood is the best time to develop healthy habits, and that good health is in fact critical to learning, to personal wellbeing, and ultimately to the prosperity of the nation itself. Or as stated by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard:
A vital and productive society with a prosperous and sustainable future is built on a foundation of healthy child development.
But this aspiration has been so overwhelmed by the complexity and costs of contemporary healthcare and the impact of negative social determinants that parents and physicians are limited often in what they can do to ensure that healthy development.
The WholeHealthED proposition is that a whole health learning experience sustained from K through 12 offers a direct way to offset these limitations, puts direct learning into the hands of the students, and complements the very significant child and community health initiatives in place around the country.