Carnegie Mellon University

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May 02, 2011

Fitwits Helps School Share Healthy Life Lessons

By Maria Zayas

A small idea can make a big difference in a community.

BanitaA little boy painted a cast of characters on a plate during a workshop for children on proper meal portions. That idea spurred Fitwits, a holistic approach toward getting communities to talk about the health effects of obesity, nutrition, exercise and portion size.

He used the characters to help him remember specific things about portions.

“He had drawn our first two characters, Monty and Jack. He was talking about two fingers worth of cheese and he told us a whole story about Monty and Jack. And that was it, Fitwits was born,” said Kristin Hughes, an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design.

Slop P JoHughes is impacting the lives of young students at Propel McKeesport, an elementary charter school where 87 percent of students are eligible for the federal free/reduced price lunch program.

“Kids at this age are forming their identities. We are offering just in time support for them to think about ways to be healthy. We teach them about preventative ways to deal with obesity,” Hughes said. “What is being healthy? It’s not just cutting back on high fat foods. You have to exercise, you have to take care of yourself, you have to be kind to one another, and you have to encourage one another.”

Propel McKeesport students have spent the last school year learning how to tell the difference between being a “Fitwit” and a “nitwit.” The program collaborates with physicians, nutritionists, local companies and organizations, children and parents.

One of the program’s successes was helping the school celebrate its first salad bar at the end of April as part of an effort to change the eating habits of students, families and the community.

Whole Foods purchased the salad bar for the school, allowing Propel McKeesport to provide students with fresh vegetables and fruit three days a week. Eat’n Park Restaurants will be donating all the produce needed for the salad bar through the end of the academic year as part of its “LifeSmiles” initiative, which aims to create healthier communities for children and their families.

“The parents are playing a variety of roles. Two of our parents are actually on our team as ‘Parent Champions’ and are vital to connecting us to the school, the home, and helping us relate to how the kids perceive the game. They are critical members of the design team,” said Sarah Rafson, coordinator of the Fitwits program. “We want to change the whole home environment, and also see the kids influencing the parents to adopt healthy styles.”

The Propel School at McKeesport has taken ownership of the Fitwits message. With help from the Parent Champions, the school built a school garden. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl donated the bricks for its construction, and students will plant and care for the garden. The program also held a workshop to help families start gardens at home.

“Fitwits is sustainable. Our goal is to plant ideas. It wouldn’t be sustainable if we tried to do everything. We try to activate enough initiative in the community so even after the game ends, there is still this buzz, a consciousness and willingness to change and accept new projects,” Rafson said.

According to Hughes, the fourth-grade science teachers have begun to incorporate ways to support the garden into the Earth Science curriculum.

Competition goes beyond individuals. Students can win points if their family participates in a challenge, if their teachers implement healthy activities into the classroom, if their whole class or entire grade level completes a challenge, and even if their principal creates a healthy policy.

Each week students receive an envelope filled with challenges and prizes. Students compete with one another to win “Fitwits Money” they can redeem for prizes. They also compete for merit badges they can wear on wristbands, which makes their success tangible and facilitates competition and cooperation. At the peer-to-peer level, students may decide to compete with one another, trying to earn the most badges. They also can nominate each other for a peer-to-peer award, which reinforces messages of caring and cooperation.

Fitwits partners include the Heinz Endowments, UPMC St. Margaret Family and Health Centers and Whole Foods. Previously a version of the program was used at the Hosana House in Wilkinsburg.

Peter Scupelli, the lead design researcher for Fitwits, said the program takes into account lifestyles and how they are influenced by individual, interpersonal, organizational and community factors. It also allows users to tailor the game on multiple levels. The Fitwits team might give teachers a suggestion for a class challenge, but they ultimately decide what the challenge is.

“From my perspective it is a new way of working with people to empower them to be successful. We create the framework for the game, but some parts of the game they are actually creating themselves,” Scupelli said.

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