You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play and Long-Term Effectiveness for Overweight Children

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By Julie M. Rutledge, PhD and Taren M. Swindle, PhD

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (YCSYCP) is a teaching philosophy coined by Vivian Paley in her same-named book. The idea is that at school, this becomes a rule in the classroom. It doesn’t mean you have to become BFFs with everyone but, rather, that school is a safe and inclusive place for all children regardless of hair color, eye color, skin color, disability, weight, gender, etc. A curriculum based on Paley’s book and developed by Amanda Harrist and her team from Oklahoma State University is featured in the documentary REJECT.

Families and Schools for Health and YCSYCP

As part of the Families and Schools for Health project (Project Investigators are Amanda Harrist, Glade Topham, Laura Hubbs-Tait, Melanie Page, and Lenka Shriver), a classroom-based intervention was implemented in 33 first-grade classrooms using the YCSYCP curriculum. Families and Schools for Health explored the psychosocial impact of obesity in young children. Why does this matter specifically for children who struggle with weight? Children who are obese are much less likely to be nominated as a friend than their normal-weight peers and are more likely to be socially isolated (Strauss & Pollack, 2003). Additionally, obese children face stigmatization and bias, are teased and bullied about weight, and have unsatisfactory peer relations (e.g., Madowitz et al., 2012). However, this intervention focuses on universal inclusion and acceptance and did not focus specifically on any topic, such as weight.

The YCSYCP Intervention

Our program lasted 6 weeks with 2 visits to each classroom per week. Each visit lasted approximately 20-30 minutes. We began by introducing the YCSYCP rule into the classroom and introducing the children to the main character of the fairy tale, Magpie. Our team led a class discussion on what children thought about the rule and ways they could apply it. Sessions 2-6 focused on reading of the fairy tale, discussions about the fairy tale, and the children’s use of the YCSYCP rule since the last classroom visit. Session 7-12 focused on facilitated role play and discussion sessions with the rule and children making their own Magpie puppet as a reminder of the rule.

To evaluate possible impacts, we collected anthropometric (height, weight, etc.) data from the children through third grade, in addition to collecting it before the intervention began.

YCSYCP Long-Term Effectiveness

Across waves, children who were morbidly obese (in the 99th percentile of Body Mass Index-for-Age) at pre-test who received the YCSYCP Intervention had markedly less increases, on average, in BMI over time compared with children of the same initial weight group who did not receive the intervention. This means that morbidly obese children that participated in YCSYCP gained less weight than similar children who did not participate. At the 3rd grade assessment, all initially overweight or obese groups who received the intervention showed less increase in BMI.

In other words, even though the YCSYCP Intervention (a) did not specifically target weight acceptance or inclusion of overweight/obese children and (b) did not discuss anything related to health or weight reduction, this Intervention had a positive impact on the weight (BMI) of the overweight children within (from beginning to end of 1st grade) and across school years (positive impact seen at the end of 2nd and 3rd grade).

Targeting social relations may be key to promoting health for young children, particularly those in the highest weight category. These findings show the impact positive social relations can have on children’s long-term health.

Julie M. Rutledge, PhD (School of Human Ecology, Louisiana Tech University) was the YCSYCP Intervention Coordinator as well as a Leader in several classrooms. Taren Swindle, PhD (Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) assisted with longitudinal data analysis and has co-authored presentations on these findings. Amanda Harrist, creator of the study and featured expert in REJECT, will be featured in a future post.


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