Children should feel they have agency in their own lives and that they can effect positive change in their world. So, when the environmental health literacy theme was announced for this issue of Science & Children, I sought apps that would give children tools to respond to environmental health concerns. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences identifies obesity as an environmental health concern (NIEHS 2019). In addition to unhealthy diet and inadequate exercise, endocrine-disrupting hormones are also thought to be linked to obesity; these “obesogens” come from some of the many registered chemicals in the United States, but we may have some control over our exposure to them through our food choices (NIEHS 2015).
The American Public Health Association notes that children are particularly vulnerable to poor environmental health because, “for their size, they breathe more air and eat more food than adults, which increases their exposure to potentially harmful sources (APHA 2020). APHA also points out that children from low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by issues of environmental health (APHA 2020). Educators need to figure out the role we can play in improving the environmental health of children. We can engage and empower our students in the process of building their own environmental health literacy. In this month’s issue of Tech Talk, we’ll look at ways to use technology to teach kindergarteners and fifth graders about nutrition and choices for healthy living.
My Food: Nutrition for Kids is a delightful app that immerses children in the exploration of foods. It comes from the German company, Urbn Pockets, which has an array of apps designed for early learners. The app provides a wide variety of play and learning experiences such as exploring foods and their sources, identifying foods children have and have not tried, tracking food through the digestive system, and much more!
My Food provides a wealth of engaging resources that lend themselves readily to scientific investigation. Design features target the needs of young learners. Interactive manipulatives are sized well for small hands. Visual cues for action are consistent across different pages in the app and bounce/blink to draw attention. All text is rendered audible in children’s voices. Additionally, screens are not overly crowded and unnecessary distractions are kept to a minimum. The app has several features that normalize diversity. Children can choose from a group of ethnically diverse “friends” to work with at the start of the app. Though most foods in the app reflect western diets, there is a wide array so many students will find familiar foods. Vegetarianism and veganism are also addressed in the app.
Before opening the app, ask your kindergarteners to share their ideas about where our food comes from. Push their thinking when the inevitable “food/grocery store” comes up. Urbn Pockets has the motto “Explore everything” and that spirit is certainly captured in the My Food app. My Food has a surprising number of clickable options and some can take users down rabbit holes. Start using My Food with small groups at the teacher table so children can receive instruction about navigating in the app, exploring the many foods that are available, and finding the home screen to start over again. Partner students at the teacher table 2:1 with devices to provide the hands-on time they’re going to want with this app while also supporting collaborative engagement and learning (EDC 2020). Next, engage learners in NGSS science and engineering practices—here are some ideas. (Find links to apps, resources and NGSS@NSTA Performance Expectations for each practice under Internet Resources.)
Use the gradual release model (I do, we do, you do) to teach children how to use the media in the My Food app to obtain scientific data. Start by having each pair at the teacher table select a “friend” from the Pick a Friend tab. This will bring children into the My Dishes tab where they will find their “friend” sitting in front of a dish of food. A swipe left/right slides a new dish onto the table; there are six dishes. Give the children a few minutes to explore the different foods. Bring them back together and demonstrate how to access the multimodal and interactive resources in the app by clicking on each food/drink and how to return home. Next, have the entire small group work through several of the same foods with you, while you guide them through collecting data from the media (I wonder what I can learn when I click on….). Finally, task children with exploring and sharing what they learn about several foods in their pair groups.
After students have learned how to collect data from the My Food app, it’s time to investigate “Where does my food come from?” using data from the My Dishes tab. Under the Info tab, find a PDF of resources including color images of foods from the app. Make food cards from these pages and give each team a food card to focus their research. Also prepare a small group graphic organizer (e.g., felt board, whiteboard) with three columns: “Plants” (with image), “Animals” (with image), and “Not sure?” Under the My Dishes tab, children will find linkages between foods and their sources for almost every food option. Unlike some apps for children, My Foods does not shy away from animals as food sources. Children will need teacher modeling and practice to obtain data about each food from the app (see above) and some may need additional support throughout. Bring children together to place their food cards in the graphic organizer to reflect their finding and have them talk about where the food on their card comes from. Lead students in an analysis of the group data, engaging all pairs in investigating any foods that children are not sure about. Have children analyze multiple dishes or have each group that comes to the teacher table analyze a different dish and aggregate class findings on a whole-class graphic organizer, bringing everyone together to interpret the class data.
|My Food: Nutrition for Kids|
Eat & Move-o-Matic is the kind of app you can’t stop exploring! What if I try … this food?! Or… that activity?! This free app for Apple iOS mobile devices comes from the New Mexico State University’s Learning Games Lab. Curiosity is piqued with relatable scenarios and easy-to use, on-screen manipulatives that satisfy wonderings with a flick of the wrist. Interactive dials allow users to explore the relationship between a wide range of foods and physical activities. “ProTips” flesh out the deceptively simple calories in, calories out model.
Eat & Move-o-Matic is available in English and Spanish, and students are additionally supported with multimodal content including text and images. Quantitative data is provided for food (calories) and physical activities (calories/min) as well as the time you would need to do the activity to use up all the food calories. This app is a rich resource, providing data on 80 foods and 35 physical activities! Foods largely reflect the Standard American Diet with some Americanized international dishes and many vegetarian options. The app does not require the internet to run after it has been downloaded, so patchy wireless won’t slow you down.
Part of environmental health literacy is knowing the relationship between foods and physical activities available to us in the places we live. We can look at this relationship in different ways. One way emphasizes that not all foods are created equal for healthy living and where we live can impact our access to foods and activities. Another angle situates humans as part of nature and the environment, framing food as the provider of trackable resources that keep our species alive and fuel our life activities. In this lesson, students will have the opportunity to consider both.
|Eat & Move-O-Matic|
To start, have your fifth graders brainstorm about their life activities including fun activities like playing soccer or dancing, as well as daily tasks like walking to school. With their own activities in mind, show your students a list on the board of foods/drinks from the Eat and Move-o-Matic app. Elicit student ideas about (1) origins of each food source (e.g., chocolate milk: animal milk, flavoring and sweetener from plants); (2) which foods on the list will provide the most/least energy for activities; and (3) which activities require the most/least energy from foods.
Next, give your fifth graders a few minutes to explore Eat & Move-o-Matic. Have students work in small groups/pairs, 1:1 or 2:1 with devices to troubleshoot small issues, freeing you up to solve any bigger tech issues and manage the class. Here are ideas for engaging learners in NGSS science and engineering practices. (Find links to apps, resources, and NGSS@NSTA performance expectations for each practice under Internet Resources.)
Identify one physical activity from Eat & Move-o-Matic for the class to use, such as playing basketball. Then distribute a unique list of app foods to each small group. Each group will use the app to gather data to answer the question, “How long will different foods power my basketball playing?” Students will add their data into a class data table and plot on a class graph. Have students work in their small groups to interpret the class data. If possible, use a digital class spreadsheet (e.g., Google sheets), prepared in advance with column headers, sample data in the first row, and a bar graph/chart linked to the data columns (y-axis = minutes of activity; x-axis = food type). Have students establish descriptive categories for groups of foods. Focus students on characterizing foods by their sources (e.g., animal meat) or nutritional categories (e.g., proteins) rather than only on how foods are prepared (e.g., fried). The categories will facilitate pattern-finding across foods and also gives students language to use in their claims, evidence, and reasoning for the question, “How long will different foods power my basketball playing?”
Use Eat & Move-o-Matic for a personalized learning experience to answer “What do I need?” After students have explored relationships between foods and activities, have students conduct a self-assessment. Provide a graphic organizer for students to list 10 foods/drinks from the app that they regularly eat. Create additional columns for students to fill in three activities they regularly engage in and record the time for each activity in these columns based on each food. Integrate the ProTip feature to add nutrition data into the analysis by including a “Nutritious?” column with a yes/no option and space for notes. Include graph templates for students to plot their data on three physical activity graphs (x = foods; y = time for activity). Finally, have students create a reflection with a claim about their food choices and activities to answer the question, “What do I need?” using evidence to support the claim. Look for themes in student reflections and follow up with a discussion of strategies for how students can get what they feel they need.
Heather Pacheco-Guffrey (Hpachecoguffrey@bridgew.edu) is an assistant professor and researcher of science/engineering methods and technology applications in STEM for elementary and early childhood teachers at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
American Public Health Association (APHA). 2020. Children’s Environmental Health.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 2019. Environmental Health Topics.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 2015. Obesity and the Environment.