Archive for February, 2012

How to Plant Your Own Spring Garden

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Spring is the perfect season to start a new garden. It’s a fun and satisfying activity for the entire family, a great way to get some exercise, and you can even eat the results. Here are a few tips to get you going.

Survey Your Space

No place is too small for a garden; you can even grow food in containers. You also need to consider the conditions. Some plants prefer a mix of sun and shade, while others require several hours of sunlight. Examine your soil–if it contains a lot of clay you will want to open it up and neutralize the pH. Your local garden or home store employees will know what products are best for your particular conditions.

Work out your water source. For a small garden a watering can is fine, but if you are planting some serious acreage you will need a hose and ideally an underground drip line system (this is also a good way to keep slugs and snails out because they are attracted to the surface water).

Choose Your Plants

Spring is a good time to plant herbs, which are easy to grow anywhere. Strawberries and blueberries are delicious super foods that you can grow in your own back yard as well. Tomatoes should go in the ground now, but don’t expect to enjoy that harvest until late summer. Peas are a great garden addition─you can eat them right off the vine in late spring and early summer or throw them into a salad. Kids love planting and eating them, too.

If this is your first time gardening, you may want to buy young plants instead of seeds. If you choose seeds, germinate them in a wet paper towel, put the sprouted seeds in some potting soil in small containers (yogurt cups with a hole punched in the bottom for drainage or a cardboard egg box) and keep them in a sunny area indoors until you see sturdy little seedlings.

Collect Your Tools and Supplies

These include fertilizer, garden soil (unless you’re fortunate enough to have lush, loamy dirt already) a shovel, a few trowels, work gloves, pest repellant, and possibly some lumber if you’re building a fence or raised bed. Some communities offer free compost or garden mulch to residents—check your city’s website and go early to pick it up.

You can also keep away pests without toxic chemicals. Neem oil mixed with detergent is a safe and effective bug killer. Mix crushed eggshells into the soil around your plants to deter snails and slugs. Marigolds not only attract bees and butterflies to your plants but they keep away pests, too.

Break Some Ground

If you are planting in an untouched space, you are going to need a good supply of elbow grease to prepare the soil. Strong teenagers are great for this, but anyone can do it. Even toddlers can help pick rocks out or pull weeds. Take it in stages and start early. Water the soil before you start, or do your digging after light rain. Pull all weeds out completely. If you leave the roots or just plow the weeds under, they’ll come back to compete with your chosen plants, and they will most definitely win. When your soil is soft, crumbly, and free of debris, you can add in garden soil, fertilizer, or any soil conditioners. Dig, turn, and turn again. The hard work really does pay off later.

Plant a Seed (or a Seedling)

Here’s another activity in which all members of the family can join in. Small children do better with large seeds, such as the aforementioned peas, or nursery plants, which have their roots protected in a ball. Homegrown seedlings can be very delicate, so save those for older fingers. Dig a hole, put the plant or seed in, cover loosely, water daily as needed, and pull any weeds. Then watch them grow!

Gardening has a learning curve and sometimes a green thumb must be grown through experience, so don’t be discouraged if not everything bears fruit, or even comes up. Your next garden endeavor will be that much easier. Enjoy your harvest and your new garden expertise. You are now a pioneer.

Treat Spring Fever with These Fun Outings

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Have you found that you and your family are feeling restless lately? Well, spring is nearly here, and it’s time to get off the couch and get outside. If playing Wii golf doesn’t cut it, then get the family together and start planning to get them back out in the world. Everywhere across the country the season is bringing change and growth–here are a few ways to enjoy it. spring-hike

Take a Winding Walk

No matter where you live in the United States, you’re likely within a few hours of a historically or culturally important site. Find a trail: the Pacific Crest stretches along the entire West Coast, the Appalachian runs from Georgia to Maine, and there is any number of other great walks in between. Our nation was built on people pulling up stakes and heading somewhere else, for better or worse. You can tailor your trip to fit your family, from a gentle two-mile loop to a week-long trek in the backcountry. It’s a time to review history, exercise in the fresh air, and most of, all it’s time to be out together with no electronic distractions or hectic schedules. Pack your shoes, some healthy snacks, and a good map; and get ready to have a great time.

Make Some Waves

Whether your closest shoreline is an idyllic stretch of beach, a jumble of rocks, or even a small, lazy river, grab your kids and spend the day splashing around. If you’ve never kayaked, now’s a great time to rent some gear and see what all the fuss is about. Bring the bikes and find a new scenic route. You can even stop to try bouldering—that’s what kids these days call climbing on rocks. Are you looking for something a little more relaxing? Visit a wildlife sanctuary. Depending on where you go, you can watch magnificent shorebirds, seals and sea lions, alligators and snakes, butterflies, or otters and beavers play in their natural environment. Learn about habitats and the importance of protection. It may inspire you to find ways to help preserve these precious spaces and their animal residents.

Play in the Sand

Maybe you’re nearer to a desert than a beach, in which case you have an excellent opportunity to learn about geology and local flora. Desert hiking and camping can open up a whole new world, especially in early spring during the very short blooming season. See who can take the best photos of desert flowers or find the most interesting rock. If you’ve got caves within driving distance, try going underground. Learn the difference between a syncline and an anticline, and then try to find one. Keep in mind that the desert gets very cold at night this time of year, so if you’re camping, come prepared with warm sleeping bags and blankets.

Get Lost

Take some time to put away your GPS. Get involved with an orienteering group and learn to find your way around with a map, a compass, and your own observational skills. This is an excellent confidence builder for middle school aged kids and early teens. If you can’t find a group, make your own with a few other families.

Urban Adventure

Sure, all these ideas sound great; but what if you live in the city and you don’t have time for a long nature outing? No problem! Map out a hike from one public place to another with as many interesting stops as you can fit in along the way. Again, find a historically significant site (or three), learn about it, and then go there to check it out. Take a break for some Frisbee in the park. If your local park has fitness stations (obstacle courses, inclines for sit-ups, and so on) hit them all and see who is in the best shape. If it’s been a long time—or even a lifetime—since you’ve played tennis or basketball, find a court and play! Teach the kids, or let them teach you something new.

Whatever you do, make sure there’s something in it for every family member (even parents). Exercise and togetherness are the goals, but don’t wear yourselves out, or the return trip will be rough. Come back tired but still wanting more. It’s always good to have a plan, but be flexible and open to whatever nature brings. When you go back to the grind of work and school, you’ll have a new appreciation for springtime and some great ideas for weekend adventures that will hold you over until summer vacation.

photo courtesy of retired60

Update on the 2012 Carol M. White PEP Grants

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
Latest news for the 2012 PEP Grants:

There will be no new PEP competition this year. Instead, the program will make new awards by funding down the slate of 2011 applicants. Therefore, no new or revised applications for PEP grants will be accepted in 2012. Applicants that did not win in 2011 may have the opportunity to receive an award in 2012, depending on the score from last year’s competition. Awards will be announced by 9/30/2012.

This information was received via email from the PEP Program Manager, Carlette Huntley.

Information for PEP Grant Applicants/Winners:
  1. New: Resource Guide for PEP Applicants/Winners Click Here
  2. SPARK alignment with national & state standards Click Here
  3. PECAT Reports for SPARK K-8 PE  Click Here
  4. HECAT Reports for our Health & Nutrition Partners (Healthy Lifestyle Choices and Healthy Kids Challenge) Click Here
  5. Denver Public Schools PEP Grant success story Click Here
  6. SPARK Assessment Tools Click Here

Making Time for Exercise as a Family

Monday, February 20th, 2012

With hectic school schedules, work meetings, and tiring days, it’s hard to make time to exercise as a family. Televisions, video games, and constant Internet connectivity also don’t help us find the time to get outside and play together. But with some concerted effort and prior planning, making time to exercise as a family can help your health and communication, and allocates time to bond as a family unit and talk to each other about your lives.

Spending time together as a family and getting everyone out of the house is a high priority for maintaining family health. And spending more time with kids helps them make better decisions and be less likely to get into trouble.

Walking or Running

Simply going for a walk is the easiest way to incorporate exercise into your day. Choosing a nice scenic route can make a walk more enjoyable, but oftentimes heading straight from the house can give you less of an excuse to postpone. Parks can also incorporate more than one activity. Parents can go for a walk while children enjoy field games or just run around.

If you are feeling really ambitious, try signing up the family for a 5k run or walk and give yourselves a goal to work up to. Setting a plan and reaching the finish line is a great way to bond together as a family and reach a successful goal.

Ride a bike

Bike riding is another family favorite. Biking trails can make a fun and safe ride for children of all ages. And having a personal bike to take care of and enjoy can make each family more inclined to stick with it.

Pick up a sport

Family leagues are picking up speed, and there are many ways to get involved in outside sports. Even a family game of tag or kickball can bring fast fun to the outdoors. Plan a Saturday game of tag or join a week night sports team to help you stick with a regimen. These types of group sports help your family build confidence, learn cooperation, and get exercise in an enjoyable way.

Yoga, Martial Arts, Dance Classes, and Swimming Lessons

All three of these activities can be enjoyed regardless of the season, and can be a fun way to bring challenge to your exercise. Scheduled classes are also harder to miss, and allow family members to meet new people and work toward a goal. Classes can also lend reasons to practice at home, making it easier to bring exercise back into everyday life.

Bowling, Tennis, Basketball, or Volleyball

Bowling is a great sport for the whole family. Fun and exciting, bowling is almost like exercising without even realizing it. Join a league to keep your family dedicated, or plan a bowling night every week to help your family look forward to a fun exercise outlet.

Sports played on the court are open to all ages, and can help your loved ones get into the game. With multiple courts available at gyms and all-ages teams cropping up all the time, there’s no reason to keep the family cooped up in the house every week. Sign up for a gym membership or get involved in local clubs to help each member remain accountable for their exercise regimen.

If it seems like there’s just not enough time in the day to exercise, try keeping an activity journal. There’s a good chance that each family member has more downtime than you think, and those times can be rearranged to make more space for family exercise.

With all the virtual workout games on the market, chances are you are already set to provide the family with an entire home workout theater. Get the kids up for a dance party or play activity games on your gaming console. There is a whole new world out there made up of virtual exercise that incorporates games, weight loss regimens, and fun challenges for the whole family.

However you choose to get your family involved in exercise, the highest priority is sticking with it. Keep a calendar or set dates in advance to make sure that there can be no last-minute excuses. Families that exercise together can reap the benefits of a healthier lifestyle, a closer relationship, and a higher level of confidence.

New Documentary to Show Transformation of East Harlem School into Model of School Wellness

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

A whole-school wellness transformation is underway at The Children’s Storefront School in East Harlem, New York. The Children’s Storefront is an independent, tuition-free school, serving children from the neighborhood, grades P-8. The student population is 98% African-American, and 90% of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch. This Coordinated School Health Initiative, led by Cathrine Himberg, a professor in the PETE program at California State University-Chico, is being captured in a documentary titled “No Excuses!” produced by John Roussell, professor of Communication Design at CSU-Chico.

It all started a year ago with a needs assessment. The first change was to hire a qualified teacher to replace the “gym class” leader who had no related training, and no teaching credential. A former SPARK employee, Helen Primrose, was selected for the position. The next step was to train all teachers and staff. The school’s main challenge is lack of space, so SPARK’s standards-based and  pragmatic curriculum was a natural choice.  SPARK donated teacher training, curriculum and equipment, and additional support and services were donated by The First Tee, The Annika Foundation, Human Kinetics, and the Action Based Learning lab.

During their sabbaticals from CSU-Chico last fall, Himberg and Roussell spent two months at the school implementing changes, and documenting the transformation. Now, instead of a “roll-out-the-ball” “gym class”, a qualified physical education teacher is teaching standards-based, best-practices focused quality physical education to the school’s 180 students. Most of the classroom teachers are doing physical activity brain-breaks in their classrooms.

For example, in the middle of math class, the children get out of their seats and dance the “Brain Boostin’ Boogie” (SPARK MS dance), and get back to work with renewed focus. The school’s cafeteria staff is finding more ways to support the students’ health by using whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables in every meal.  One teacher is organizing exercise sessions after school, and all teachers have been given a pedometer for their personal use, access to classroom sets, library “loaners” for homework assignments, and ideas for implementing pedometer lessons into all academic subjects. One eight grade student, Nanyamka, changed the Comic Book Club’s Bake Sale fundraiser last week to a Healthy Snack Sale, with great success. The children are moving more during recess because they have new equipment to play with.

Parent education sessions will start in March, and we are hoping for parent support and involvement. The head of school, Wendy Reynoso, is supporting the transformation by providing the time needed for teacher training, and by supporting the efforts of the project. Additional funding from the Center for Advancement of Standards-based Physical Education Reform ( will bring the new PE teacher and the head of school to the AAHPERD conference the next two years.

The documentary, titled  “No Excuses!”, aims to show that if a change can be created at this particular school, it can be achieved anywhere with qualified committed teachers and supportive administrators. The objective of the documentary is to educate school administrators, parents and policy makers on the role of quality physical education and comprehensive school wellness programs on children’s health, academic achievement, and school behaviors. It tells the story of the transformation at The Children’s Storefront, while also presenting evidence and expert interviews from around the country of how a “No Excuses!” approach is vital when it comes to turning around the nation’s obesity epidemic, and promoting overall wellness and lifelong activity. The end goal is to increase the commitment and advocacy needed to accomplish comprehensive change in schools throughout the nation to help children become more healthy and fit.

The project is supported by, an initiative of the Center for Advancement of Standards-based Physical Education Reform (CASPER). For more information visit the website, and on Facebook @supportREALteachers.

New School Lunch Rules: It’s a Win-Win Not a War

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

From our partners at Healthy Kids Challenge:

I’ll be the first to admit that Healthy Kids Challenge makes it a top priority to create, and recognize, win-win situations when it comes to the health of our children. Regarding the final USDA rules for school lunch, they are a huge step forward in improving school nutrition. On Jan. 25, 2012, the new USDA School Nutrition Standards were announced, which will deliver healthier school meals to our nation’s children. The Standards include:

  • both fruit and vegetable choices every day.
  • increased whole grain options.
  • offering only low fat or fat free milk.
  • insuring proper portion sizes based on age.
  • focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

These new rules also serve to create a win-win in the middle of an overall “food fight” mentality. Kids and adults alike will benefit from the win-wins of these changes.

  • Win by eating more fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat dairy
  • Win by eating less fat and sodium
  • Win by serving proper portions

Sounds a whole lot like MyPlate and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, eh? I bet that’s not an accident.

I am by no means saying they are THE solution. They join the growing body of healthy sustainable changes; ultimately leading to a healthy environment for our kids (and all of us, really). It took months of compromises, public comments, trade groups, politics, and more, to come to these final rules. The end result is a set of rules that everyone can benefit from – #1 being our kids. Yes, there is still work to be done. It’s going to take creativity and cooperation to make budgets and timelines work. But we are all on the same team. And now we can move forward and make the best of the situation, with what we have, wherever we are.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer some tips to help you do what you can to help make your own school’s meals into a win-win situation. Click here:

For the official USDA press release and actual standards, click here:

See SPARK at National AAHPERD in Boston!

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

National AAHPERD is fast approaching!  SPARK will have a big presence in Boston and we hope you’ll attend one/more of our presentations listed below and see us in the exhibit area.

Presentations for Tuesday March 13th

“Exergame Workshop – United We Move Towards Active Games 4 Health”

8am -12pm

Aaron Hart

“2 Small, 2 Many, 1 Teacher = 5 Solutions!”

8am -12pm

Sandy Slade and Aaron Hart

“Let’s Move – Let’s Dance”


Courtney Sjoerdsma

Presentations for Wednesday March 14th:

“Fair and Equitable – Really?”


Paul Rosengard and Kymm Ballard

Presentations for Thursday March 15th:

“H.O.P.E.; A Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program”


Dr. Thom McKenzie, Hans van der Mars, Metzler, Shannon Williams

SPARK Demonstrations in the Exhibit Hall

  • 9:30-9:50am Area #1  “Team Dream Dance”
  • 11:00-11:20am Area #1 CASPER Dance Demo #1
  • 11:30-11:50am Area #1 “Moving Magic”
  • 2:00-2:20pm Area #2 CASPER Dance Demo #2

Presentations for Friday March 16th:

“Training Teacher Candidates in SPARK PE” (poster session)


Aaron Hart, Scott Townsend, Derek Mohr

“Evidence Matters: Translating Research Findings to Stakeholders and Policy Makers”


Dr. Thom McKenzie, Monica Lounsbery, Aaron Beighle

“Boogie Boost for Body and Brain!”


Catherine Himberg

Presentations for Saturday March 17th:

“SPARK – Yesterday and Today”


Dr. Thom McKenzie and Paul Rosengard

What’s in Season? How to Incorporate Winter Vegetables into Your Dinner Menu

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Just because you’re wrapped up in winter clothes doesn’t mean you have to lose the pleasure of fresh produce during those colder months. If you’re looking to bring seasonal vegetables to the dinner table, take a trip to your local farmers’ markets and produce carrots-and-snow-peasaisles to take a tally of what vegetables are in stock. Some of these winter vegetables come at the greatest values of the year, and they taste the best during their bountiful cold season.

Not every vitamin-rich veggie closes up shop after the warm weather dies down. There are many winter-friendly vegetables out there to choose from.

  • Cruciferous Vegetables – Many cruciferous vegetables can be grown during any season if located in temperate climates. But these veggies taste best when harvested in the fall months. Those vegetables in the cruciferous family include: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnip, rutabaga, and radishes.
  • Root Vegetables – Although not as exciting or alluring as many spring vegetables, root vegetables are another cold season favorite. Available from local winter storage or grown during the cooler months, root vegetables are a great way to continue eating well throughout the season. Carrots, celery, and parsnips can all be found outside of the spring and summer months.
  • Potatoes, Squash, and Onion – Potatoes and onions can be stored for long amounts of time, making them an excellent source of vegetables during colder months. Also, aptly named winter squashes are grown in the winter months, and can be found fresh for use in soups and stews.
  • Beets, Belgian Endive, Cardoons, Celeriac, Chicory, and Treviso – These lesser-known vegetables are a fun way to experiment in the kitchen. Check your produce aisle for these infrequent offerings. Try throwing them into your daily meals in new and exciting ways, and use them as a reason to try out new cookbook recipes.

Just because many of the produce markets are low on crops doesn’t mean you have to stop incorporating vegetables into your meals. And although you can’t find them at the restaurants, it doesn’t mean they are not around or that you can’t use them to create a satisfying meal.

There are plenty of wonderful ways to warm up your winters. From great winter soups to stews and slaws, winter root vegetables make the perfect foundation for a great meal. Keep the following meals in mind next time you’re at the grocery store:

  • Butternut and ham bisque – Make this soup to incorporate a sweet winter squash and a salty kick for a welcoming dinner delight. Made with onion, rosemary, garlic, potatoes, squash and ham, this bisque incorporates winter flavors into a warm winter dish.
  • Lentils with wine-glazed winter vegetables – This warm recipe comes with a dramatic appearance and can include carrot, parsnip, onion, and celery root glazed with tomato paste. Mixed together and then added to a comforting lentil base, this dish is a snowy weather show-stopper.
  • Roasted parsnips – A great side dish to pork, roasted parsnips that are caramelized and bathed in balsamic vinegar and brown sugar can be combined to make a sweet and satisfying side for meat dishes.
  • Honey roasted root vegetables – Roast lively winter vegetables with honey to bring out the natural sugars of caramelized vegetables and help bring variety to starchy winter sides.
  • Brussels Sprout Gratin – Make a creamy cheese and bacon sauce to bring a welcoming twist to this usually dull vegetable.
  • Snow Pea and Cabbage Salad – Think outside the box with a slaw and snow pea salad. Throw in some radishes and broccoli for color and flavor, and bring the cabbage crunch to the dinner table.
  • Kale Chips – Tired of the old greasy potato chip? Throw some olive oil and salt on kale leaves and bake them into a crispy, healthy, vitamin-packed cold weather snack.

Blustery winter days are no reason to stay out of the produce aisle. Many vegetables can be stored and sold throughout colder months, and many others peak in the off-season. If you live in a temperate climate, keep an eye on your produce stand for picks of the season and bring home vegetables that are perfect for soups, stews, casserole, and side dishes to spruce up your cold weather suppers. Many year-round vegetables peak in flavor during the colder months, so don’t be afraid to sample the produce on display at your local store.

photo courtesy woodleywonderworks