"It's going to be a busy day," Cindy Cantayre told the nearly 30 grade-school-aged children standing in front of her. "I hope you're all ready to have some fun!"
The children shouted back excitedly, and so began another activity-filled summer day at the Orchard Park Recreation Center in Wichita.
Wichita Parks and Recreation is one of five community recreation departments from across Kansas recently awarded a $50,000 grant as part of the Serving Kansas Communities program, a partnership of the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) and the Kansas Health Foundation. Salina, Lawrence, Arkansas City and Parsons join Wichita as this year's grant recipients.
The Serving Kansas Communities program is built around the goal of enhancing summer feeding programs at parks and recreation sites in the state. As each school year ends, the challenge nationwide becomes ensuring children still have access to nutritious meals somewhere in their community.
With this program, children coming to a local recreation center for a meal also participate in learning opportunities, physical activity games and nutrition education.
Orchard Park is one of six parks and recreation sites offering the program in Wichita, and on this morning the children started the day by going outside to water the garden where they've planted everything from tomatoes and okra to squash and cucumbers. The children marveled at how fast the plants were growing, and several commented that, until they got to plant their own vegetables, they had only ever seen these foods at the grocery store. Now, they were growing their own.
Next, it was time for the children to get some exercise, and as music played, Cantayre, a personal fitness trainer on staff at Orchard Park, led the students in a series of exercises, including everything from jumping jacks and lunges to jogging in place and dancing.
"This is my favorite part," said Bradley, 8. "I don't like sitting still, so I like getting up and moving. It's not boring!"
The other children seemed to feel the same way, as yelling and laughing filled the room. According to Mark Lowry, director of the Orchard Park Recreation Center, this type of energy comes from the children each day.
"One of the biggest challenges we have is keeping our programming interesting throughout the summer months," Lowry said. "That's what's so great about this program. The kids don't just come to eat and leave. They're here for an extended time because there's something new to do each day; something new to learn. They keep coming back for more."
Once the music stopped, it was time for the children to take their seats for another favorite activity: nutrition education with the OrganWise Guys. The OrganWise Guys curriculum features stuffed puppets shaped like organs, with names like the Kidney Brothers and Hardy Heart. The lesson this morning was about the importance of eating fruit, with a focus on tropical fruit as the "food of the month."
As Cantayre explained to the children that they would be trying pineapple, mango, kiwi and papaya, staff members brought around cups to each of the students with samples of the fruits.
"When I was their age, I don't think I would have ever tried any of those, except maybe pineapple," Cantayre said. "This is showing them how many different healthy options there are, whether it's fruit, like today, or the vegetables we're growing in the garden. It gives them a chance to try something new, and the tastings keep the curriculum interesting and hands-on."
While Cantayre talked, the children began trying the different fruits. One boy said he liked the pineapple best, while his friend said they were all good, but he still liked apples and oranges more. For Jeannette, 8, there was a clear-cut winner out of the fruits she tried that day.
"My favorite is the mango," she said. "I like it because it tastes good and it's all juicy."
While everyone agrees it's important for the children to be exposed to gardening, physical activity and nutrition this summer, the success of the Serving Kansas Communities program in Wichita and other communities is also dependent on whether the children retain the information and use it to establish healthy habits from an early age. Cantayre believes that is already happening.
"I've had so many parents come up to me when they drop the kids off, and they always comment on how their kid told them about what Hardy Heart said or about how important it is to get exercise," she said. "I hope that means they're retaining the information and want to stay healthy and active. They seem to enjoy it while they're here, so I think they'll use the nutrition information and the exercise patterns as they get older."