A more holistic approach to a child's health and fitness

Schools try fun strategies for all-round wellness of every pupil, not just unfit ones

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Park View Primary School introduced a fitness programme in 2013 to help overweight and unfit pupils lead healthier lifestyles.
Park View Primary School pupils participating in various physical activities during recess, as part of the school's Fun And Fitness programme. Though the programme is targeted at overweight pupils, the Active Play @ Recess component is open to all an
Park View Primary School pupils participating in various physical activities during recess, as part of the school's Fun And Fitness programme. Though the programme is targeted at overweight pupils, the Active Play @ Recess component is open to all and has become quite popular with the children. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Most pupils head off to the canteen first for a quick bite. Then, out come the badminton rackets, basketballs and hockey sticks.

When The Straits Times (ST) visited Park View Primary School during recess last Thursday, a hockey game was in full swing in front of the stage at the school hall.

At the back of the hall, pupils sprinted, leapt and rolled through a series of soft and hard obstacles in a "fitness circuit". From the stage came the soft patter of pupils skipping away.

Said Primary 3 pupil Ethan Almeida, still sweating from the fitness circuit workout: "I like the part where we jump on the springboard, because I can pretend I'm flying!"

Other popular activities during the Pasir Ris school's 30-minute Active Play @ Recess are football, badminton and basketball in the parade square and, of course, "catching". Aerobics sessions are also held sometimes.

Active Play @ Recess is a key part of the school's Fun And Fitness scheme for overweight and unfit pupils, but is open to all and well-attended across the board.

Started in 2013, Fun And Fitness includes a budding chef programme that teaches pupils to prepare healthy meals, and learning journeys to ice-skating rinks and trampoline parks. Since its inception, the proportion of overweight pupils at Park View Primary has tumbled from 13 per cent to 10 per cent.

Over at Xinmin Primary School in Hougang, all pupils have been able to take part in games such as basketball and football before school and during recess since 2014. Its proportion of overweight pupils fell from about 18 per cent in 2014 to 13 per cent last year.

The programmes at the two schools are a far cry from the Trim and Fit (TAF) programme launched in 1992 to tackle obesity and promote fitness in schools and pre-universities.

Up till 2007, schools ran TAF (read as "tough") clubs to help overweight pupils lose weight, often by singling them out and putting them through repetitive exercises, such as jogging and jumping jacks, before school and during recess.

This has been replaced by the Holistic Health Framework, which aims to promote the physical, mental and social health of all pupils - not just those who are overweight or unfit.

Mr Wong Liang Han, senior specialist and deputy director of Physical, Sports, Outdoor Education (Physical Education) at the Ministry of Education (MOE), said: "Our students are still growing, and will naturally put on weight. The focus should be on getting them to change their behaviour and lifestyle, rather than focusing on how much weight they have lost."

He added that in recent years, there has also been a greater emphasis on "unstructured play".

"Our vision is for schools to run programmes that are fun and enjoyable, so that even students with healthy weights will want to join them."

TAF clubs have not been without controversy. For sure, the TAF programme has encouraged many to lead healthier lifestyles - the proportion of overweight students in Singapore fell from 12 per cent to 10 per cent between 1993 and 2005.

But TAF clubs were also associated with a stigma, and some have drawn a link between TAF and a rise in eating disorders.

Recent graduate Lui Yuan Sen, 26, told ST that he used to skip TAF sessions in secondary school because he was embarrassed about always appearing sweaty in class after recess.

Said Mr Lui, whose weight is now within the healthy range: "TAF - read it backwards and it's FAT. Other kids called it the fat club."

Mr Muhammad Fadylla Rashiman, 35, who attended the TAF club between Primary 5 and Secondary 2, said that while he felt "the intention (of the TAF club) was good", he found it embarrassing to jog around the school in the morning as other pupils walked in through the gates.

It was not TAF, but his interest in soccer, that spurred him to become fitter in Secondary 2.

"Soccer during recess was the turning point," said the assistant director for Physical, Sports and Outdoor Education (Physical Education) at MOE. "I played more - because I wasn't told to."

For others, their TAF club membership invited unkind remarks.

Ms Vanessa Tan, 22, the second runner-up of the 2015 Miss Singapore beauty pageant, was in the TAF club in upper primary and lower secondary. At 57kg, with a height of 1.4m, she said she was considered severely overweight.

"They called out your name in PE (physical education) to tell you that you were in the TAF club, and you'd hear the other kids giggling."

During recess, she could not join her friends for meals because she had to run laps before eating.

After the taunting from peers became too much to handle, she went into self-imposed exile - including from other TAF club members.

"People hated you for being fat, so you thought, 'Maybe I should not mix with fat people,'" she said.

To make matters worse, around Primary 6, she started cutting her wrists and developed anorexia.

Ms Tan, whose father later got her to adopt a healthier lifestyle, said: "Schools told obese kids how to be healthy physically, but they didn't educate the whole school on how to approach obese kids."

Others have a different story to tell. National athlete Renuka Satianathan, who was 1.65m tall and weighed 67kg as a Secondary 1 student at Methodist Girls' School (MGS), attributes her sporting success to the TAF programme.

She told ST that the programme at MGS, known simply as "Outdoor Pursuits", offered a range of fun activities, such as in-line skating.

She gravitated towards running because of its simplicity and the control it gave her.

Ms Satianathan, 29, who previously could not run 1.6km without stopping, became quite good at it.

She "graduated" from TAF within a year, joined the school cross-country team, and represented Singapore at the Asian Cross- Country Championships in 2005 and the 10,000m race in the 2011 SEA Games.

Outdoor Pursuits was where it all began, she said. "An entire life trajectory got set off."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline A more holistic approach to a child's health and fitness. Subscribe