Some days ago I was talking to someone who made a remark that really struck me. He said that he was not surprised that Malta has such high obesity rates among children, when school breaks are so short, compared to how they were in the past.
Indeed, school breaks of around 15 and 30 minutes respectively, are hardly enough to enable physical activity, which is so important for children’s health. The actual time for such activity is shorter, as the school breaks also include time reserved for eating.
Almost inevitably, school breaks can become characterised by races against time: a race against time to play, and another one against time to eat. Unwittingly, what is supposed to be recreational time can end up being another example of anxiety-building.
When I was a kid, I remember much longer school breaks, where playing and interacting with others enabled, for example, proper sports leagues and tournaments, but even a proper rest from erstwhile important lessons and activities.
The Ministry of Education has retained positive initiatives introduced by the previous administration, and has also added some others, such as the Breakfast Club and guidelines for children’s food content. I believe that the time has come to take another step along this path.
For example, the Ministry of Education can look into the possibility of having food served at school. This happens in many countries around the world, and it has certain advantages.
Without become food fascists, schools can help ensure that children are eating healthy food.
Kids can be introduced to food which they otherwise wouldn’t have tried elsewhere. Equitable policy could also ensure that children’s dietary differences are respected. If the school break is longer, children can learn to appreciate further the importance of eating.
Today we hear a lot about the value of slow food, of eating as a social ritual, which can help foster inclusion and the sense of community.
If the school break is longer, children can learn to appreciate further the importance of eating
Children who, for some reason or another, would otherwise be labelled or stigmatised, even if unintentionally, for not following school recommendations on what and how much food to get to school, would avoid this trauma as they would be eating the same food as others.
Apart from the nutritional, community and social justice aspects of in-house food provision, there are other factors which can be taken into consideration.
For example, some basic food and vegetables can be grown on the school premises, even if in low quantities, and can be used for educational purposes in areas such as science, environment, geography, languages and social studies. The school can become a permacultural experience on its own right.
In turn, children can be encouraged to appreciate the importance of food, and to think reflexively on the various aspects which characterise it.
Therefore, a policy change in food provision at schools can result in a wide range of direct and indirect learningoutcomes. Obesity, anxiety, labelling, inclusion, community building, appreciation, and sustainability become issues which pupils and students can learn about in a direct way, and not simply through abstractions.
Above all, through longer breaks, children can have real recreations. Play, eating, integration and rest can all act as positive social functions for children’s educational experiences.
Yet, every policy change can have its own challenges. For example, schools might not have the infrastructural or architectural prerequisites for suchoperations. There might be resistance from different quarters to this culture change. And there might be difficult operational issues regarding food provision and distribution.
Another challenge could concern school hours. But school days needn’t be longer.
The Finnish educational model – one of the most successful in the world – shows that breaks can be longer without jeopardising educational outcomes.
I acknowledge that such policies can introduce various challenges, but I hope that Malta’s Minister for Education considers such possibilities, especially when his ministry is one of the best performers of the current administration.