Archive for the ‘SPARK Blog’ Category

Do Young Children Need Physical Education?

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Children Playing

As a parent, sometimes the things you hear experts say about children’s health, and the things you observe in your own kid(s), can seem conflicting. You’ve likely heard about initiatives to increase physical education programs in elementary schools. Yet, when you witness your own elementary-age kids speeding around the kitchen in a game of tag with the family cat, it certainly seems like they have limitless energy — at this age, do they really need a program at school to get them to be active?

Here’s the thing about physical education: yes, these programs encourage physical activity, but it’s the second part of the phrase — the “education” portion — that’s the key factor, and the reason all young kids should have access to formal physical education classes.

Your kids may not need any help being active (your exhausted pet can likely attest to this); but they won’t learn about nutrition, fitness, and the importance of a healthy lifestyle on their own. Here’s why it’s so important to offer physical education classes to children, especially when they’re young.

Promoting Lifelong Fitness

For years, studies on childhood obesity and the importance of health and wellness on development have painted a clear picture of the ways children can benefit from physical education.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for both preschool children (ages 2-5) and adolescents (ages 12-19). For children between the ages of six and eleven, the rate has tripled. Obese adolescents are also more likely to develop prediabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a high risk for development of diabetes, as well as bone and joint problems.

While encouraging physical activity is the first step to combatting childhood obesity, educating our children about fitness is the step that will carry them into healthy adulthood. Curriculum-based physical education programs teach kids how to exercise, using safe and proper techniques, and how to keep their muscles and hearts strong.

When we teach our kids about health and wellness at a young age, and build a positive association around being active, they are much more likely to develop healthy habits that continue throughout their lives.

Boosting the Brain

There’s more to physical education than just keeping your body fit — it also keeps your brain fit. Scientists have discovered a link between physical fitness and brain functionality in children. Researchers found that the brains of children who are more fit have a bigger hippocampus (the region of the brain connected to memory). These kids performed better on memory tests and activities than their less-fit peers.

The cognitive benefits of PE extend into classroom learning — multiple studies have found an association between physical activity and increased concentration in school. Several studies have researched the link between physical education and cooperative learning — a teaching strategy in which groups of students work together to improve their understanding of a particular subject. Children learn the importance of team-building and collaboration through physical group activities.

While many physical education programs face the risk of being cut from academic curriculum in favor of increasing class time, the reality is that active children tend to perform better in subjects like reading and mathematics.

Eating Right

A big part of physical education is teaching kids how to make healthy choices for their bodies — and that includes food choices. A comprehensive physical education curriculum includes lessons about nutrition and diet, teaching children (at levels they can understand) why certain foods are good for their bodies.

We know that a nutritious diet is important for growth and development; but it’s easy to forget the true impact that poor nutrition can have on a growing child. Young kids who lack nutrients in their diets are often more susceptible to illness, have trouble focusing, and sometimes show emotional side effects.

Physical education classes teach kids about the importance of various food groups, and how they interact with the body — in every area from your bones and heart, to your brain and even your mood. Learning how to make smart food choices will help your children as they get older and need to make more choices on their own.

Building Social Skills

Formal physical education can also help facilitate healthy social interactions. Early on in life, children develop their sense of identity and social cues by engaging in various group dynamics.

Physical activity — like running around on the playground — builds muscles and improves cardiovascular health, while physical education — structured classes in which kids have to complete physical activities — also exercises a child’s self control and develops cooperative skills and consideration for others. Playing team games and activities in a supervised environment allows opportunities for children to learn social skills, like how to lose — and win — graciously.

Participating in group activities and team sports encourages leadership, community engagement, and even altruism. For very young kids, basic and essential lessons like sharing and speaking kindly to others are encompassed in a physical education setting.

Physical education plays a substantial role in shaping children’s health and development, teaching them valuable life skills in fitness, focus, nutrition, and social interactions. A good understanding of these topics can make the difference between your child growing into a healthy adult, or falling into lifelong unhealthy habits.

Physical Education vs. Physical Activity [INFOGRAPHIC]

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing! Although they work together like peanut butter and jelly, Physical Education and Physical Activity are two separate things — and it’s important for teachers and parents to understand the difference.

physical activity vs physical education


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Physical Activity

— any bodily movement that involves physical exertion

  • A physical activity program gets you up and moving, in some form. This can include recreational sports, fitness classes, after-school programs, and recess.
  • Physical activity is unstructured
    • Kids can make their own choices and create their own rules
    • Helpful for learning social skills and problem solving techniques
  • Just some of the things that count as physical activity…
    • Dancing
    • Walking the dog
    • Doing push-ups
    • Throwing a baseball
    • Playing tag at recess
    • And much more!
  • Physical activity is one part of a physical education program — but physical activity can be found in many areas outside of physical education.
  • Physical activity should be incorporated throughout the day: before and after school, and during recess

Physical Education

— curriculum-based program that teaches students the benefits of physical activity, builds techniques for leading an active lifestyle, and promotes lifelong healthy habits.

  • A physical education program not only gets children moving, but also teaches them why that activity is important, what types of activity benefit your body, and how you can stay active throughout your life.
  • Physical education is structured
    • Students are taught how to play and skills needed to play
    • Students learn the rules for how to play games and participate
    • There is a structured warm-up and cool down
  • Physical education teaches children the importance of being physically active and about the human body and body systems
  • Physical education programs include:
    • A written curriculum, with clear objectives
    • Some form of grading or assessment
    • Standards and Grade-Level Outcomes
    • Physical activity for most of the class time
    • Lessons in ways to lead a healthy lifestyle through physical activity, nutrition, fitness, and social responsibility
  • Physical education incorporates physical activity, along with many other things, to form a complete program.

Do You Need Both?

Yes, you do!

According to SHAPE America, physical activity should make up at least 50% of a physical education program.

Benefits of Physical Activity:

  • Releases endorphins
    • Children who get at least 15 minutes of recess a day behave better in class than students who get less than 15 minutes a day.
  • Strengthens muscles / bone density
    • Children ages 6-17 should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
  • Reduces risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, and heart disease
  • Enhances cognition
    • Children respond to cognitive tasks faster and with greater accuracy after a session of physical activity.

Benefits of Physical Education:

  • Teaches safe and correct exercise techniques
  • Promotes good nutrition and understanding of the body
  • Encourages lifelong health habits, decreases chances of unhealthy adult lifestyle
    • Overweight teens have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.
  • Enhances academic performance
    • Endurance exercise increases oxygen to the brain, strengthens neurotransmitters, and stimulates brain growth — improving your ability to think, learn, and retain information.
    • In physically fit children, the hippocampus (region of the brain affecting learning and memory) is roughly 12% larger than less fit children.
    • In a study of D.C. schools, students received higher standardized math scores when schools provided at least 90 minutes of physical education per week.
  • Builds skills in setting and achieving goals

New Year, New PE Lesson Plans

Monday, January 9th, 2017


The New Year is a great time to try new things. With people taking the time to reflect and set new personal and professional goals, why not also refresh your physical education lesson plans in order to keep kids engaged in the curriculum?

Luckily for physical education teachers, it’s often a bit easier to get students engaged in PE class than it is in a math or science classroom. Physical education already has a distinctive advantage: kids are moving, which makes them better learners. Research from leading institutions across America has found that when kids move, their cognitive skills increase and attitudes improve, which leads to better performance in PE class and in their academics overall.

Still, there’s always room for improvement — and here at SPARK, we’ve got you covered!

Re-Assess Your Lesson Plans

Any physical education teacher knows that a class requires more planning than simply tossing kids a ball and having them kick it around. Just as with other subject lesson plans, it’s important to take stock of what you’re trying to accomplish with an activity, and during the setup you need to do that.

Take a game of basketball. A classic PE activity, a teacher needs a number of class materials, such as a certain sized gymnasium with activity lines on the floor, and the right type of ball. A physical educator also needs to know the rules of play and a game time limit.

Perhaps the guidelines and materials listed above are all that’s currently written in your PE lesson plan. That’s a great start, but it’s not all you should include. This New Year, take the time to do a “content analysis” of your PE lesson plan where you consider the learning outcomes you want to accomplish from each activity.

Basketball has a number of learning outcomes for students: improved hand eye coordination; increased locomotor skills from movements such as running and jumping; and expanded teamwork and cooperation as they plan with their teammates and work together to win the game.

By determining the specific physical, social, and intellectual learning outcomes for each class, you’ll be better able to guide students towards meeting those goals. Not only that, but at a time when physical education classes are being cut across the country, it will be beneficial for you to provide very specific learning outcomes to administration so they’re sure to see the inherent value of PE class.

Introducing New Games

As well as determining learning outcomes for your existing activities, the New Year is also a good time to add completely new games to your lesson plan roster.

Introducing new games doesn’t mean tossing aside your existing lesson plans. Just as in a science class where students may learn about the parts of the body, then cell structure, then cell reproduction, physical education lesson plans should be all about building on existing learning. That means taking a classic game like basketball and mixing it up a bit!

Look at the activities that you currently incorporate into the curriculum and find some way to modify them. Or, do this in reverse: write a list of the learning outcomes you’d like to achieve from your PE curriculum and then develop activities to match those outcomes.

SPARK has various activity plans designed specifically for elementary, middle school, and high school students. Each plan comes with instructions, learning outcomes, assessment tools, and more, so you can focus on what’s most important: creating an engaging physical education class for your students.

6 Ways to Help Students Keep their New Year’s Resolutions

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

New Year

With 2017 just starting, New Year’s Resolutions are a hot topic of discussion. Many people set a resolution, but it usually falls to the wayside after a few weeks. People see it as too difficult, or too time consuming, and give up.

There are many tips and tricks to find success, specifically when it comes to different ways to help students keep their New Year’s Resolutions. These actionable tips will encourage and inspire!

Aim for Reasonable

Everyone has things they want to change in their lives, but it’s important to set realistic goals so that students expect changes to actually stick. For example, instead of them saying, “I want to get stronger,” encourage them to say something more like, “I want to run three miles.” Take this a step further to make sure that all goals you set are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (learn more about SMART Goals). And when they hit their first goal, encourage them to create a new one. This idea is all about creating a series of mini goals on the road to achieving one major goal.

Other great mini goal examples:

  • For a student aiming to eat healthier, have them cut out one junk food from their diet each month.
  • For a student who wants to commit to studying more, have them agree to clock in 30 minutes/day of studying.

Celebrate the “Small” Stuff

It’s okay to have multiple big goals going at the same time, but don’t let students get too caught up in the ultimate end on the way. It’s important to celebrate the small stuff on the way to a goal. A few examples:

  • If your student’s goal is to run further, give them a reward or heap on the praise for every 10 miles ran.
  • If your student’s goal is to get straight A’s, give them credit for raising grades from C’s to B’s.

Even actions as “small” as doing homework before it’s due should be rewarded to reinforce these positive actions that lead to big results for students. Encourage parents to assist with rewards, which may be things that help push students towards their next goal. Depending on the goal, these things might be new workout shoes or new school supplies. A reward doesn’t have to be big or expensive to be effective!

Make it a Friendly Competition

Making a goal with a friend who has a similar goal will help keep students on track. With a competitive aspect added to goal setting, students are more likely to work hard to achieve it. Motivation towards the desire to win or do better than the other person will fuel action, especially with kids.

Activity trackers allow you to track your fitness progress against other friends. The device lets you see how many steps a person has achieved in a day, and how you’re ranking against them. This can push users to be more active so they can “win.” Social activity trackers are a great way to motivate and create accountability between students.

Track Progress

One of the best ways to help students keep their New Year’s Resolution? Make sure that they write it down, and track it! By keeping a record of progress, it will help students see how far they’ve come over time. It will help students visualize their progress, instead of feeling like they’ve gotten nowhere. This is especially important when setting mini goals on the path to major goals.

To make this process easier, encourage students to use an app to track progress. After all, people are already glued to their smartphones – students might as well opt in for record keeping via an app.

One Goal at a Time

Most people’s New Year’s Resolutions are ambitious, and some people try to focus on more than one at a time. Oftentimes, this won’t end up working out, because people get overwhelmed and want to quit.

If a student has a few big goals (like eating less junk food, exercising more, getting better grades, etc.), they should pick one, and work towards that. Some goals will inevitably coincide, and students may achieve two goals while doing one, without realizing it. Also, encourage students to rethink their goals if they become something they hate. It’s okay to change a goal – it’s not failing, just rethinking.

Ask Someone for Help

It is okay to be struggling with a goal/resolution. Tell students that if they need a new way of approaching something, it’s 100% okay to ask for help from a friend, family member, or someone who has accomplished what they’re aiming for. By asking for help, it holds a person accountable to their goal. When someone has gone out of their way to help, it fuels the desire to do better.

It’s okay to slip up, we’re human! Tell students not to let that stop them from achieving their goals, even if they have to make adjustments. Keep at it, and ask for help if needed.

Keeping up with New Year’s Resolutions can be difficult, but not impossible. Helping students set realistic goals is a key to success, and holding them accountable is another. Finally, make sure students know to ask for help and adjust if necessary.

What would you add to this list of ways to help students keep their New Year’s Resolution?

Healthy New Year’s Resolutions for Kids

Friday, December 30th, 2016


New Year’s resolutions aren’t just for adults. This year’s end, sit down with your children and ask them what they’d like to see happen over the next 12 months.

Setting these goals can be an excellent opportunity to get children thinking about how their decisions affect their long term health and wellbeing. Resolutions that involve goals set around healthy eating, physical activity, school, and self care are all appropriate for kids.

Rather than sitting in solitude and making a list, we suggest making resolution setting a family activity. This can be done by going around in a circle and having each member of your family say something they’re proud of and something they’d like to improve. This creates a positive environment in which to goal set, and builds on a child’s ability to be self aware and reflect on the year that has passed. PBS also recommends setting family resolutions, such as pledging to eat a healthy dinner together every Friday night or going on a long hike once a month.

Inappropriate resolutions for children are ones that set out an unhealthy body image. While “lose weight” was the number one resolution for adults in 2016, children should be discouraged from setting a similar goal. Establishing an idea like “I need to lose weight” in a child can be damaging, especially as that child becomes a young adult. So even if losing weight is your resolution as a parent, avoid bringing that up with your child. Instead, resolutions should be linked to proactive and positive goals.

Without further ado, here are some healthy New Year’s Resolutions to set with your children this year, divided into the four categories listed above.

Healthy Eating

Food is possibly the area of their lives where children make the most choices. Parents have the opportunity to guide healthy eating resolutions, classifying food not as “good” or “bad,” but rather as something that should be consumed in moderation. These resolutions should look at alternatives to unhealthy food, and encourage kids to be experimental in their eating.

  • I will try one new food a month, and will finish eating it even if I don’t like the taste;
  • I will go to the grocery store with Dad and pick and eat one fruit that is unknown to me;
  • I will drink water or milk on a daily basis, and save soda and juice for special days;
  • I will eat fruit and vegetables as my afternoon snack rather than chips;
  • I will bring my own healthy snack to the movie theater instead of having Mom buy me popcorn.

If your child needs some healthy eating inspiration, try introducing them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, MyWins resource, which features colorful graphics for food groups and valuable tips for how their plate should be filled.

Another excellent way to get your child more invested in the food they’re eating is to have them help prepare it! Check out Kids Can Cook Gourmet, a food blog that includes video guides on how to make different recipes.

Physical Activity

These are important resolutions, especially at a time when more than one third of American children are considered either overweight or obese. Childhood is the best time to instill the value of physical activity in your child’s life. Why not do that through a few of the New Year’s Resolutions listed below?

  • I will ride my bike to school two days a week;
  • I will find a sport I like doing and join a team in order to play it regularly;
  • I will spend just as much time outside playing as I do on my computer or gaming device;
  • I will participate more in my school’s physical education class.

An excellent way to ensure your child is getting more physical activity is to lead by example. Find activities that you can do together — both your bodies will benefit!


These are resolutions aimed at improving a child’s academic performance. It is especially important to stay positive in this category of resolutions — parents should be regularly offering words of support about a child’s school performance and should offer help, when needed. School-based resolutions can include:

  • I will improve my grades in my favorite subject by the end of the school year;
  • I will attend every sport practice this semester;
  • I will ask my teacher for help if I don’t understand something being talked about in class;
  • I will finish all my homework before watching television at night.

If you really want to help your child accomplish their school-based resolution, sit down with their teacher and tell them what your kid has in mind for the year. That way they can nudge your child in the right direction if they’re lacking motivation.

Self and Family

These are resolutions meant to build a child’s sense of responsibility for oneself and one’s community.

This category can include resolutions such as:

  • I will tell an adult when I am feeling sad or upset, rather than keeping those emotions bottled up inside;
  • I will resist peer pressure at school and ask a parent if someone is trying to get me to do something I’m not sure about;
  • I will make Sunday a day for family fun;
  • I will volunteer in my community at least once a month.

Resolution Success

To make each of the above resolutions more attainable, try breaking down the large resolution into a series of smaller steps. For example, if your child’s resolution is to get an A+ in English class by the end of the year, the tiny steps could involve him/her studying every night after school for 15 minutes, reading two books a month, and reviewing every test with a teacher to find areas for improvement.

Creating these smaller steps within a resolution will demonstrate to your child that goal setting is a long term process that requires a lot of work, and isn’t something just accomplished overnight.

Staying Active in Winter: Tips and Tricks for Kids

Thursday, December 29th, 2016


Staying active in the winter months can be a daunting task. Most people would just rather stay inside, veg out on the couch, and call it a day. But these kinds of activities aren’t good for your physical or mental health. Fortunately, there are numerous indoor activities that can be a good substitute for more typical outdoor sports during the winter months.

SPARK Lesson Plans

If your students are unwilling to go outside, there are several different games/activities that can be played indoors with little equipment.

We’ve put together collection of lesson plans that are perfect for indoor winter activities. Here are a few worth your attention:

Rock-Paper-Scissors Tag

In this game, kids partner up, play rock-paper-scissors at the midline, then whoever wins is “IT.” This person chases other players towards the endline. A point goes to the chaser if they tag a runner; a point goes to the runner if they make it safely to the endline. You’ll need cones, and flag belts are suggested.

Paper Plate Aerobics

In this game, kids have to keep a paper plate underneath each foot while doing some sort of movement. Examples include lunges, push-ups, and crunches. You could also have students use a softball and play catch with a couple others, without lifting feet off the plates.

Toy’s Alive!

In this game, everyone spreads out and pretends they are a toy (like in Toy Story). When they hear “Andy’s coming!” they must freeze in position. Students count down from three to one, and wait to hear “All Clear!” to move again. In order to move, they must use a bean bag as a “battery,” balanced on their head or shoulder. If the bean bag falls, the student must freeze until another toy-student helps them out. You’ll need cones and bean bags for this activity.

YMCA’s, Open Gyms, and Community Centers

Encourage students to take fitness into their own hands, outside of school. During the winter season, there’s a lot of time over break that should be used to constructively balance holiday indulgence.

YMCA’s offer a multitude of options for indoor activities, that vary depending on the location. A few different things that may be available at your local YMCA:

  • Gymnastics, swim classes, youth fitness classes (yoga, dance, Zumba)
  • Sports; basketball, flag football, volleyball, martial arts, running

Besides YMCA’s, open gyms, usually reserved for basketball, are “open” for anyone to use. They can also have space for gymnastics or volleyball nets. This is a great option to suggest to students with specific activity preferences.

Local community centers offer a variety of different activity options that are similar to what a local YMCA might provide. A local community center might offer martial arts, dance classes, and various sports teams to sign up for. But staying active doesn’t always mean doing a sport or exercise class. Another “activity” might be something like taking a cooking class as a family at a community center.

Bowling/Indoor Rollerblading/Indoor Trampoline

The best way to get a student to exercise? Make it seem like something that’s more “fun” than “work.” A few ideas to suggest for staying active in winter:


Bowling gets you up and moving, plus it’s fun. You don’t have to be great at bowling, and there are bumpers on the lanes for kids. It’s also relatively inexpensive!

Indoor Rollerblading

Students may claim it’s too cold to go outside to ice skate, so encourage them to opt instead for indoor rollerblading. There are many health benefits associated with rollerblading: it’s easier on the joints, improves your overall mood, and can also help with endurance and agility.

Indoor Trampoline: Indoor trampoline parks are getting more and more popular. It’s an indoor park composed of trampolines and a pit of foam cubes to jump into. Trampolining is a great way to get kids active! Did you know that a ten minute bounce is the same as a half hour run?

Outdoor Activities

Just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean you HAVE to be stuck inside! There are many activities to do outside that kids, and parents, can enjoy. Some suggestions:

  • Build a snowman or snow fort
  • Go skiing, sledding, or snowboarding
  • Bundle up and go for a walk

Indoor Activities

We aren’t out of ideas for staying active in the winter yet! Here are some indoor activities to suggest to students that will probably please their parents.

Cleaning the House

It doesn’t have to be a chore! You can do a couple things to make this fun:

  1. Make it a game: whoever cleans their bedroom the fastest (an adult has to approve of thoroughness) gets a simple reward (like their choice for dinner).
  2. Turn the cleaning into a dance party and blast some tunes.


Cooking and baking can really get you moving in the kitchen. You can turn it into family time, as well and cook/bake together. If it’s around the holiday time, encourage parents to bake cookies and decorate them with the kids. Learning to cook and manage your nutrition is not only a valuable skill, it’s also something fun to do when it’s freezing outside.

Active Video Games

Many gaming consoles have active video game titles kids can play. From Nintendo’s Wii Sports, to Xbox’s Kinect, there are plenty of options. You might also suggest dancing games like Zumba and Just Dance.

Staying active during the winter is difficult for many, and being cooped up isn’t fun either.  But staying active in winter helps physical health as well as mental health. You will have more energy and be less lethargic if you use some of these tips!

4 Ways to Keep Kids Healthy During the Holidays

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016


While most children eagerly await the start of winter break, the time off from school can present a challenging conundrum to parents: in a season when so many activities are centered around eating and indulging, how can we ensure our kids stay healthy during the holidays?

Unlike summer vacation, there aren’t as many camps and organized activities hosted for kids during the holidays. Plus, it’s easy to get cabin fever inside when the days are short and the weather cold — snacking, watching TV, and browsing our computers becomes much more appealing.

Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to encourage your kids to stay active and healthy; from games they can enjoy on their own, to gifts that encourage physical activity, and fun activities that can involve the entire family. Here are a few ideas to get you and your kids started.

1. Wrapping Paper Soccer

This is a creative way to use the leftover gift wrap paper after everyone has opened their presents. Have each child make a small paper ball out of wrapping paper and tape. On cue, have players dribble their own ball around the game area (your living room, for example), and try to kick the ball between another player’s feet (the wrapping paper goalie). You earn a point every time you get the paper ball through the person’s feet. Check out our lesson plan for this game, including a number of additional exercises you can try to make this fun activity even more physical.

2. Go for a Walk

What better way to appreciate holiday family time than heading outside together?

Taking a walk is an easy and inexpensive way to get kids to put down their devices, and leave the house. If you live in a location that has snow, bundle up the kids and head out with a toboggan. Challenge kids to pull one another, dive from the toboggan, and run to jump in again. The snow acts as extra cushioning, so children can leap and fall more than they’d be able to in the summer months.

If the idea of a simple walk isn’t enticing enough to hold their attention, try setting up a scavenger hunt in your neighborhood featuring holiday themed items such as candy canes, strands of lights, and Santa hats. Or, save your stroll for the evening when you can explore the neighborhood as a family, and select your favorite displays of Christmas lights.

Going for a walk can even be as simple as bringing children along to the mall, while you do your holiday shopping. Anything that gets them on their feet and moving is great for their physical and mental health.

3. Toys Alive

There’s a famous scene in the classic Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, in which the Nutcracker leads his army of toy soldiers into a fierce battle against the Mouse King and his rodent army. Toys Alive is a fun and silly game inspired by that scene.

Set out a large play area (this could be your backyard) and have players scatter themselves. In this game, all players pretend to be toys that have come to life, moving around the play area — until someone yells “freeze!” When you hear this word, the players must hold whatever position they’re in for three seconds, until that same person unfreezes them and allows them to move freely once more. This game is great for young kids, as it helps them build their control and balance skills, there are no winners and losers, and there are sure to be plenty of laughs.

4. Paper Plate Aerobics

Too cold to go outside? You can mimic winter sports with just a little bit of imagination, and a set of paper plates.

This activity is called Paper Plate Aerobics, and it involves children shuffling and sliding along the floor, while standing on a plate. Kids can “skate” on their paper plates by sliding one foot at a time forward in a diagonal motion. Encourage them to lean forward into the movement, and hold their hands behind their backs like a classic skater.

Likewise, children can use paper plates to pretend they’re cross country skiing. Standing again on the plates, have your kids try to imitate the movements of a skier — alternating sliding their feet forward and backward, with their arms moving in the opposite direction.

To make each of these activities more fun, pull up a YouTube video of someone skiing or skating, so the kids can keep up with their movements, and pretend they’re skiing in the mountains or in the winter Olympics.

5 Dishes to Consider Removing From Your Holiday Dinner Plans

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

holiday dinner

Holiday seasons are the perfect time to have fun, bond with family members, and of course, eat. Most people use the holidays as an excuse to ditch their diets in favor of calorie-laden delicacies. After all, Thanksgiving is America’s “Biggest Cheat Day.”

Unfortunately, because of the season and the desire to enjoy the holiday, people tend to overlook the after-effects of gorging themselves on indulgent dishes. Most foods on the holiday dining table, regardless of how tasty they are, are bad for you if eaten mindlessly. The problems compound if you normally follow a strict health-related diet.

Luckily, being conscious with regards to the foods you prepare for your holiday dinner doesn’t mean dishes have to be bland and boring. Healthy options can taste just as good as diet hazards.

If you need some guidance as far as dishes to consider removing from your holiday dinner plans, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what to cut down on, and how to replace them!

1.Mixed Nuts

Nuts are a favorite snack at every holiday party. They have a lot of health benefits:

  • Rich in Calcium and Vitamin E
  • Good source of folate
  • Contain heart-healthy fats

The problem is not the quality of nuts, but the quantity most people eat. Once you start eating nuts, it’s hard to stop. Most people munch on them until they’re gone. A couple handfuls of nuts can equate to 450 calories with 40 grams of fat.

If you’re not willing to remove nuts from your menu, consider creating a small batch of spiced-nut mix. The preparation will feel more like a treat and less like a snack. By serving spiced-nuts in small bowls, you’ll reduce overall snacking and make sure guests still have room for dinner!

2. Pecan Pie

The problem with nuts runs deep. Pecan pie is a dessert, which automatically gives it the “unhealthy” label. Unfortunately, pecan pie can be a worse dessert choice than others, despite it’s lack of candy coating!

Like other nuts, pecans can be a good source of nutrients, but are calorie bombs in large quantities. When you make a pecan pie, you’re also adding in large quantities of sugar, butter, and corn syrup. Depending on how generously you cut your pie, one slice of pecan pie can contain over 500 calories with 37g of fat and 26g of sugar.

But during the holidays, it seems almost sacrilegious to ditch dessert altogether. You can still have your pecan pie, and eat it too! A few suggestions to make it a little healthier:

  • Give yourself a smaller serving
  • Create a healthier pecan pie with low-fat butter, egg whites, and lighter corn syrup

Alternatively, you can opt for a healthier pie that still fits the season. Apple pie has less than a quarter of the fat per slice of pecan pie, and also offers a serving of fiber thanks to the inclusion of apples!

3. Stuffing

During the holidays, one of the must-have dishes on every table is turkey with a side of stuffing. Just think carefully before getting stuffed with stuffing! The standard preparation can destroy anyone’s diet.

Stuffing consists mainly of bread, butter/margarine, and sausage, and contains about 175 calories per cup. If it contains sausage, stuffing can reach up to 400 calories per cut with 26g of fat.

For a healthy stuffing alternative, substitute whole wheat bread for cornbread, replace sausage with cranberries, or try a gluten-free recipe.

4. Green Bean Casserole

This dish to consider removing from your holiday dinner plans might throw you off a bit. After all, green beans are a vegetable. Aren’t they supposed to be healthy?

On their own, green beans are nutrient-packed greens. It’s the ingredient additions to this classic holiday dish that move it into a different category.

Green bean casserole is calorie-packed, with loads of sodium thanks to cream of mushroom soup, fried onions, butter, and cheese. One serving has at least 230 calories and 500mg of sodium. Incredibly, a full batch has 785 calories and 4,128mg of sodium!

Skip your stretchy pants and make this holiday dish work for you. A lighter preparation of stuffing (with fewer calories and less salt) might include broccoli and water chestnuts.

5. Spinach and Artichoke Dip

Spinach and artichokes are two types of vegetables you probably wouldn’t suspect of being unhealthy. But just like all the other healthy ingredients that have been mentioned, it’s the add-on ingredients that make this one of the dishes to consider removing from your holiday dinner plans.

Spinach and artichoke dip includes large amount of mayonnaise, sour cream, and cream cheese. A half-cup serving is almost 300 calories – and that’s without the chips to pair with it!

Like many of these other holiday favorites, there are healthier ways to prepare this dish. Alternatively, you can reduce your calorie intake with raw veggies to dip, or salsa as a dip alternative.

Did we miss any of the major dishes to consider removing from your holiday dinner plans? We’d love to hear how you’re making the holidays healthy, yet delicious, in the comments below!

The Jekyll and Hyde Holiday Dilemma: How to Prevent Unhealthy Habits

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

holiday eating

The holidays are a time of year to gather round the table, spend time with family — and potentially break every promise you’ve made to yourself to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Who doesn’t love an extra helping? A little more eggnog? You’ll be sure to burn all those calories off during January, right? The truth is, you probably won’t. When you fall out of your good habits, it’s not just the extra calories that get to you; it’s the fatigue and the procrastination that set in from a period of overindulgence.

Half the battle of defeating poor decision-making comes down to identifying your own behavioral tendencies. If you don’t take the time to understand why you’re doing something, you’ll end up with your own personal version of the Jekyll and Hyde dilemma: “Part of me wants to keep up my exercise routine and my low-sugar diet, but the other part of me is saying to skip the treadmill and try some of Aunt Pam’s cookies!”

With a little foresight and advanced planning, you can nip the bad habits early, before your own personal “Mr. Hyde” gets the best of you. Here are some simple things you can do to catch yourself in the moment, and overcome these common holiday bad habits.

Mr. Hyde’s Holiday Mistake: Eating Until You’re Overstuffed

Dr. Jekyll’s Solution: Drink More Water

You should be drinking a healthy amount of water throughout the year, but this is especially important during the holidays. We’re ready to smother everything in gravy and butter. We all want that piece of pie and cobbler, and a few scoops of ice cream. If you’re going to enjoy these indulgences, do one easy thing to help counter that icky overstuffed feeling, and the extra calories. Drink more water.

Have a glass of water for every glass of wine, or beer. Carry your water glass around with you throughout the evening. Consciously try to drink more water during your holiday mingling. Sounds pretty simple, right? You’ll be surprised by how much better you feel. Plus, when your body is well hydrated, you feel less hungry — so, you’ll end up eating less while still satisfying your cravings.

Mr. Hyde’s Holiday Mistake: Overdoing it on the Gravy – or the Pie

Dr. Jekyll’s Solution: Eat Balanced Meals

Imbalance is really at the center of almost all food discomfort (aside from allergies). Even as young children, we learn that no one food group is the best or worst, because our bodies need a balance of all food groups in order to stay healthy. “Macro imbalance” is a technical way of describing how well fats, carbohydrates, and protein in your food are balanced for your body’s needs.

There is a lot of conflicting evidence about how many meals per day are best for you, but all nutritionists agree on one thing: it’s not a great idea to binge on one massive meal, or to eat from entirely one food group. It’s easy to get carried away with extra helpings of your favorite foods, leaving little room on your plate for much else. To help you eat balanced nutritional meals, make a point to grab equal portions of a vegetable dish and lean meat — along with a (smaller) treat to satisfy your sweet tooth. This is a great time to be a role model for your children, and encourage them to mix a balanced variety of foods on their plates, just like you.

Mr. Hyde’s Holiday Mistake: Napping Before (and After) Dinner

Dr. Jekyll’s Solution: Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

New Year’s resolutions are right around the corner, but why wait until January 1st? Now is a great time to get started (or to continue) with some healthy behaviors. Of course, the holiday season isn’t a convenient time to join a CrossFit gym, or a Zumba class. A much easier solution would be to a take a walk in the morning with the family, to socialize and get some cardiovascular activity in; perhaps do the same post-dinner, before you sit down for a nightcap, or some dessert.

Go for a stroll before and after meals, do 10 crunches at night before bed, read your holiday books or magazines on the treadmill — whatever you do, make a point to participate in some form of physical activity every day. Do some power walking laps around the shopping mall, if you like. Regular physical activity will help prevent unintentional overeating, give you more energy throughout the holiday festivities, and pay real dividends for your overall health as you head into the new year.

Mr. Hyde’s Holiday Mistake: Taking a Break from “Everyday Life”

Dr. Jekyll’s Solution: Maintain Your Routine

Other than excess calories — and a propensity for becoming a permanent resident of your couch — what often suffers the most during the holidays is your daily routine. Family comes into town, or perhaps you go out of town to visit them; and like hurricane-force winds, you feel forced to drop all of your usual day-to-day habits.

Maintaining a sense of normalcy is important for both mental and physical well-being; this is especially true if you have children. If you are used to getting up every morning and having a cup of coffee, then do so — even if you’ve got a few extra members around the table, or you have to learn to use Aunt Beth’s new coffee maker. If you are used to taking some alone time to decompress at the beginning or end of your day, schedule the time — even amid the trips to the mall, the extra baking, and the wrapping of presents. Try to keep your children as close to their usual routine as possible. That means getting them to bed at a decent hour, eating meals when you normally would, and not skipping out on your usual bedtime story or afternoon walk around the block. Your family will thank you; your mental health will thank you too.

Our Top 10 Posts on Early Childhood Education

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

physical activity

Minds of young children are sponges for information. Every lesson about life, behavior, and humanity is absorbed to form the foundation for lifelong skills. Known by experts as the “formative” years of life, early childhood experiences help  shape the person a child will become.

Over the years, we’ve covered some important topics relating to early childhood education. Let’s revisit just some of our favorite posts, and see how they can help you learn more about promoting positive early development.

1. Introducing Young Children to Exercise Routines

Thanks to technology, children are now more likely to live a sedentary lifestyle than any generation that came before them. In fact, 89% of children between the ages of four and five spend more than two hours a day watching television. This post demonstrates how to keep kids active by introducing youngsters to positive habits and exercise routines while they’re still young.

Start Them While They’re Young: Introducing Kids to Exercise Routines

2. What is Necessary For Early Childhood Education?

Part of developing a good system for early childhood education is understanding exactly what is necessary for a holistic approach to learning. From the value of physical activity to the importance of play, recess, and nutrition, this blog examines the pillars of youth development.

Schooling, Health, and Youth Development – What is Necessary?

3. Encouraging Early Childhood Learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Since 2014, STEM jobs – careers that require education in science, technology, engineering, or math – account for more than 10% of all professions within the United States. With that in mind, it makes sense that parents and teachers alike would want to support early childhood learning in these areas. This post looks at how to encourage valuable STEM skills for the modern generation.

How to Support Early Childhood Learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

4. The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education

Promoting growth and development at an early age isn’t only about pushing your child to spend more time in an academic classroom setting. Playtime, physical activity, and recess play crucial roles in developing skills associated with socialization, collaboration, and emotional intelligence. This blog outlines the real power of play.

Early Childhood Education: The Power of Play in Physical Education

5. Encouraging Healthy Lifestyle Habits

Perhaps the easiest way to ensure that a child will grow up happy and healthy is to encourage them to take part in positive activities as part of their everyday routine. Since children learn from repetition, this post shows how promoting healthy behaviors like nutrition and physical activity early helps to set the foundation for life-long habits.

11 Ways to Instill Healthy Lifestyle Habits In Your Children

6. Does a Healthy Lifestyle Improve Behavior?

Creating a holistic path for development means understanding the value of healthy living not only as a tool against childhood obesity, but also as a method of promoting good behavior and positive character traits. The earlier teachers and parents begin promoting good behaviors, the more likely it is that they will develop into lifelong aspects of a child’s personality. This blog outlines the scientific link between character and healthy living.

Can a Healthier Lifestyle Promote Good Character in Kids?

7. Using Exercise to Improve Academic Performance

Since early childhood education is so important to a youngster’s future, it’s important to encourage positive mental, physical, and emotional development wherever possible. This post demonstrates the science behind studies that show exercise as a valuable tool in helping students to excel academically.

Can Exercise Help Students to Excel Academically?

8. Creating a Positive Environment For the First Weeks of School

Part of promoting a positive early education relies on the ability of guardians and educators to represent the school as a place of growth and enjoyment. Children need to approach learning with the right attitude to get the best results, and this blog offers some ways for educators to create a positive learning environment, which can set the tone for the school year.

Back to School: Creating that Positive Learning Environment.


9. Structured Physical Activity – The Benefits

We all know that physical activity is essential in early childhood – but is it better for that activity to be structured, or unstructured? This post underscores some of the benefits of structured physical education for early childhood programs.

The Benefits of Structured Physical Activity for Early Childhood Programs

10. The Benefits of Physical Activity in School

One of the best ways to turn healthy behaviors into habits at a young age is to help children understand the true value that physical activity has in their lives. This infographic is a fun and simple collection of all the information you need to know when creating a plan for comprehensive childhood development.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind – The Benefits of Physical Activity in School [INFOGRAPHIC]

A Holistic Approach to Early Education

At SPARK, we believe in the benefits of an active and holistic childhood education. For a child to grow to be healthy and happy, they need to understand the value of positive behavior like physical activity,  how to cooperate and socialize, and discover the full strength of their inner resilience, patience, and brain power.

What do you think of our list? Are there any great posts that you think we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!