Educating healthy and happy children in the digital age

School children at a table in cafeteria eating lunch together

By Tracey Burns

Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was a forceful reminder that schools are not just places of academic learning. They are part of the social fabric of our lives, and a large body of evidence sets out the important role they play in ensuring well-being and community.

The rush to remote learning as schools closed highlighted not only the immense opportunities of the digital world, but also reminded us of how essential our physicality is. Humans are social, and thrive on face-to-face connection. A hug emoji is not the same as a hug.

In some countries, school closures also disrupted access to essential regular school meal programmes, and governments had to move quickly to provide food or vouchers to families who relied on this to feed their children. As many social services were no longer available due to nationwide lockdowns, teachers and school personnel also had to step in, keeping regular contact with families, especially the most vulnerable.

While the situation experienced during school closures was extreme, it highlighted deficiencies in skills, capacity and resources in education that need to be addressed by policy makers around the world. It also emphasised the ongoing shift in the roles of teachers, from primarily academic provision to a more holistic role in supporting student well-being. Balancing these different elements has long been a challenge; doing so well in the digital world even more so.

Today the OECD has released a new report on educating healthy and happy children in the digital age. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on these issues, countries have long been taking strides to empower students and support their health and well-being. This is a key lever to address inequality: Children in poorer households are less likely to have healthier eating habits, such as eating fruit, vegetables or protein every day than their more advantaged counterparts. They also have lower rates of breakfast consumption on average. And despite improvements over time, 48% of children still report that they do not eat fruit or vegetables daily in the latest HBSC study (of 45 countries across Europe and North America).

Educational efforts go far beyond the provision of meals. Japan hires teachers with specific knowledge on diet and nutrition to provide guidance to students. A number of systems, including the Czech Republic, the Flemish Community of Belgium and Scotland (United Kingdom) have developed regulations or guidelines for foods that can be sold or provided in schools. Encouraging physical activity, both during breaks and as part of the instructional process, is also a key policy aim. In Denmark, for example, school leaders are responsible for ensuring that primary school pupils move for an average of 45 minutes per day. Teachers can incorporate movement throughout the day in different ways such as including short bouts of activity during traditional teaching and learning activities in the classroom, or during specific periods dedicated to movement and exercise.

Using the power of the digital world, Australia, the French Community of Belgium and New Zealand all have online resources that provide children and their families, as well as teachers, with healthy eating tips and ideas. Other education systems specifically target the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks, in both the physical school and digital environment.

Supporting student health and well-being is crucial to ensure that all children, including the most vulnerable, reap the benefits that education has to offer

Other interesting digital initiatives include the use of social robots to support children’s healthy development. For example, the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) is currently trialling a child-friendly elephant robot equipped with an intelligent camera. The robot detects a child’s approach and its trunk provides soap or sanitiser while a video explains the best way to wash hands. The robot will use artificial intelligence to register responses and determine what it should say or do: For example, it will register whether the children look the elephant in its eyes or turn away. Other social robots encourage children to eat healthier snacks, and they have also helped motivate children with chronic diseases to comply with health treatments.

Supporting student health and well-being is crucial to ensure that all children, including the most vulnerable, reap the benefits that education has to offer. Health and happiness is important for learning, and for later life outcomes too. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “it is health that is real wealth, and not pieces of gold and silver.”

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