Good nutrition and adequate amounts of physical activity are essential to the healthy growth and development of children.
A healthy diet in children is associated with better concentration, higher academic achievement and reduced risk of obesity. Several factors influence a child’s ability to eat healthy, including societal, environmental, social and individual level factors. Children and adolescents today face several challenges to healthy eating. Compared to the past, they possess fewer cooking skills, which partly occurs because parents rely more on prepared foods and cook less often. Also, food skills programs have been removed from many school curriculums, despite being proven to positively influence eating habits. Environmental exposures also impact eating patterns, influence lifetime attitudes and perceptions about food, and ‘normalize’ unhealthy eating habits. This includes media advertising of unhealthy foods that is directed towards children, which is a significant concern because children rely heavily on the visual aspects of marketing and often lack the capacity to think critically about the messages communicated. Foods and meals produced for children often are of lower nutritional quality, containing higher levels of sugar, fat and salt.
Among older school children, physical activity and sports team participation are positively associated with a higher grade point average and reduced risk of obesity. Sports participation, in particular, has tremendous potential to promote positive youth development by instilling psychosocial skills that promote thriving and resilience. However, one of the contributors to both low physical activity and sports participation is physical illiteracy. Physical literacy describes the basic fundamental movement patterns (e.g., walking, running, jumping, catching) necessary to competently engage in physical activity and sports. Physical literacy proficiency in children is correlated with levels of physical activity, time spent in physical activity, and with indicators of physical fitness. While some teachers are integrating daily physical activity into the classroom, children are not getting the minimum physical activity needed for maintenance of health. All these reasons combine to make digital innovation to support healthy eating and physical activity a high-needs area.
The apps will directly address the need to increase nutrition and physical literacy, with a goal of improving the nutritional and physical health of Ontario school children. Content related to nutrition will include age-appropriate messages on food groups, portion sizes, healthy snacks, choosing healthy restaurant and packaged foods and reading and interpreting the Nutrition Facts table. The topic of energy balance will tie together nutrition and physical activity. Content related will also focus on increasing physical literacy of both children and parents. The apps will also be interactive and competitive. For example, children will collect points to unlock new levels and receive badges for a certain amount of physical activity. The competitive aspect is expected to ensure adherence.
The first app in the Body Zone is currently in development and is focusing on nutrition education with the learning outcome goals of understanding healthy eating messages and nutrients that relate to chronic disease. A prototype of this app is currently available and will be completed by April, 2018. The second app will focus on physical activity education. Development for this app will begin once the first app is completed. The topic for our third and final app will likely focus on nutrition or a combination of nutrition and physical activity education. All three apps will be grounded in the Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum for grade 5 and 6 students and be targeted to that age group (10 to 12-year-old students). At this point, we intend to create a storyline that will interconnect all three applications.
The BodyZone apps are being developed for Apple and Android tablets, and will also be playable on Mac and PC. The first app is currently being developed with the Unity 3D game engine.