“Who brought their dinosaurs to school today?” Althea Barnes asked a class of toddlers at BMCC’s Early Childhood Center (ECC) recently. Every hand shot up.
“Well, let me hear your dinosaurs—and let me see them!” shouted Barnes—“Ms. Tiah” to her young charges. To demonstrate, she jumped up and down rhythmically, windmilling her arms. The room became a flurry of roars, shouts and movement. “Do your dinosaur dance,” Barnes called over the din. “Shake your body. Jump, jump jump!”
What the children didn’t know was that all that fun was good for them—and that Ms. Tiah’s presence was part of an ECC initiative to get children moving and to combat childhood obesity.
A national priority
According to recent studies, 43 percent of New York City’s children are overweight and 24 percent are obese. “Obesity isn’t just a body image issue,” says ECC Executive Director Cecilia Scott-Croff. “It’s a health and physical development issue.”
It has also become a major national healthcare priority. First Lady Michelle Obama is leading a high-profile campaign to combat childhood obesity. And, as the current academic year began, Congress designated September “National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.”
At BMCC over the past few years, the ECC has reworked classroom schedules to give children more time outdoors and reduced the sugar and fat content of meals and snacks. “Whether in or out of their home, children should have environments that promote their health, safety and physical development,” says Scott-Croff.
In its application for funding for its C-CAMPIS program—“Child Care Access Means Parents in School”—the Center incorporated “No Child Left Inside,” a concept developed within the early childhood community to support increased physical fitness and more movement with children. “We also began to incorporate yoga in some of our classrooms as part of the lessons,” says Scott-Croff. “But what we really wanted was a more structured program for the children.”
As Scott-Croff tells it, she was going through her own health and fitness resurgence when she was introduced to Barnes at a local community center.
“She was a fitness trainer specializing in Zumba—a form of dance exercise that incorporates Latin and international music and makes working out easy and fun,” Scott-Croff says. “After just a few sessions, I felt incredibly energized—like a new person.”
To her surprise, she learned that Barnes was an adjunct instructor in BMCC’s Teacher Education Department.
“I thought, How coincidental!” says Scott-Croff, who subsequently introduced Barnes at an ECC teachers staff meeting. “Within 20 minutes, everyone was talking about incorporating Zumba into their classrooms. It was a natural fit.”
Warming up, making believe, and cooling down
When it was approved, the C-CAMPIS grant provided funding to retain Barnes on a regular basis to work with the Center’s pre-school and school-age children. These days, Barnes teaches Zumba at the Center every Wednesday; she also works with classes at other schools and early childhood centers through her program, Zumba for Youth.
“Regardless of the age of the kids I’m teaching, we always begin with a few warm-up exercises, like the dinosaur dance, and end with a cool-down,” she says. Zumba incorporates salsa, merengue, reggaeton and hip-hop as well as a large measure of imagination and make-believe, she adds. “The benefits are incredible for adults as well as children. When I started teaching Zumba two years ago, I was a size 10 or 12; now I’m a 4 or 6. And I have much more energy.”
Says Scott-Croff, “A session with Althea leaves the kids feeling really energized and good about themselves.”