School Uses Architecture to Improve Student Health

There has been lots of talk in recent years about the childhood obesity epidemic (the number of obese children is three times larger today than it was in the 1980s), and how schools can do more to promote healthy habits in kids. In response to the problem, some schools have focused on increased physical education and more mandatory exercise, while others have made moves to alter school menus and do more to encourage healthy eating. One school, however, is using another tool – architecture – to fight back against subpar childhood nutrition.

With the help of a team of public health researchers, a rural Virginia elementary school has redesigned much of its dining area, with all the changes meant to subtly promote more healthy eating habits in kids and turn them away from junk food and poor dietary choices. Changes included adding a teaching kitchen where kids can learn to prepare healthy meals, adding storage space for local fresh fruit and vegetables, creating a school garden, making the kitchen visible to kids so they can watch their meals being prepared, and even a change as simple as redesigning the checkout line so that the children’s line of vision would fall on healthier food options.

Other changes include adding more walking paths and staircases, removing deep fryers, and flexible furniture that allows for more movement when sitting. By making these changes, the school hopes that alterations in the environment kids spend their days in can make a change to many of the unconscious and unconsidered behaviors that lead to childhood health problems.

The Subtle Effect of Environment on Behavior

When planning the changes, the school and its team of public health specialists consulted many studies on architecture, behavior, and the interaction between the two to find as many ways as possible that building design can be used to affect behavior. According to Matt Towbridge, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who helped with the designs, these effects should not be underestimated – the design of a building can do as much toward promoting healthy behavior in children as PE class. When a building is designed to promote healthy behavior, it instills good habits and promotes an active lifestyle, often without the people involved even noticing. Many lifelong habits are picked up in childhood, so using building design to influence those habits positively at a young age is especially effective. In the words of Towbridge, “It’s so much better to help prevent children from becoming obese than to try to help adults lose weight.”

Given the known effect that architecture and landscape design can have on behavior (and that adults are just as affected by America’s obesity problem as children), will other organizations aside from school districts begin experimenting in using building design to encourage positive behavior? While the extent of this movement toward attitude adjustment via aesthetic design is far from mainstream, it may only be a matter of time before more businesses, building firms, and other organizations start using this Virginia school’s example of how it can use space and layout to encourage better habits.

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