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Healthy re-Quest: Study looks to address childhood obesity with video game
File photo - Burks Elementary third-grader Reece goes over his answers to The Cooper Institute's NutriGram assessment in May 2011. McKinney ISD's Finch Elementary is one of six Texas schools now participating in a study that will examine how a health-oriented video game could help children improve their nutrition.
The "quest" against childhood obesity has gone electronic, at least in Texas.
Selective gaming may lead to better nutrition for elementary students, according to The Cooper Institute and The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, which this week launched a study that will use a video game to help children understand how to optimize their health via 3-D avatars and apples.
Six Dallas-area schools, including Finch Elementary in McKinney, will take part in the study. Ninety minutes a week, for six weeks, fourth-graders will play "The Quest to Lava Mountain," a game that teaches them skills like gathering and cooking healthy food while reinforcing science, reading, environmentalism and social collaboration.
"Childhood obesity is one of the biggest challenges we face today in Texas and in our country," said Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, founder and chairman emeritus of The Cooper Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to preventive medicine research and education. "With larger numbers of children suffering from diabetes, heart and other diseases, it's more important than ever to improve fitness and reduce the fatness of our young people.
"We must come up with innovative ways to do this, and 'The Quest to Lava Mountain' video game is one of the unique approaches we are taking at The Cooper Institute."
The Cooper Institute initially tested out the game in recent years, when it launched it to 1,800 kids in Texas, who used it during their NutriGram program. NutriGram assesses children's knowledge, behaviors and attitudes toward healthy eating through the game and an online questionnaire.
Promising effects of game were revealed through a school in El Paso, in one of the nation's poorest zip codes, said Nancy Beasley, associate director of youth initiatives at The Cooper Institute. The school's principal allowed students to play the game at the school over the summer and noticed immediate health-conscious changes, Beasley said.
"We found out the El Paso students were asking their parents for milk instead of soda when they went grocery shopping," she said. "They were asking for healthier things."
Perhaps living out their own "quest." In the game, food is fuel for their avatars, which go faster and farther in the game on healthier selections. Choose the right fuel, gain more energy - much like in everyday life.
"It's more about an embedded mindset for the kids," said Karin Klemm, McKinney ISD physical education facilitator. "The hope is that they'll be thinking the same process in real life, as they're going through their day. They'll know that if they eat the apple, they'll be more active and energetic."
Other tenets: eat smart, be more powerful; importance of variety and moderation; and relation of physical activity to nutrition. The game allows monitoring of the food-choice trends of players at the beginning and end of their respective quests. End-of-quest surveys and before-and-after recalls will gather gamers' real-life food choices.
The young gamers' top responsibility: beat the game.
"If a kid completes a video game, we feel like as educators we need to go in and test that child; why is that?" said Beasley, who with others had their research, "The Quest to Lava Mountain: Using video games for dietary change in children," in the Journal of American Dietetic Association. "We trust the game mechanics and we trust they finished the game...so we know they know the content."
Participating schools are spread around the area, and three other schools - not playing the game - will be used as controls in the study.
Klemm first saw the game when Burks Elementary students played it during their NutriGram - a brief gaming session compared with the upcoming six-week quest of 20 Finch Elementary fourth-graders.
She and Beasley met with Finch participants and parents Thursday afternoon to explain the game and study. Jim Young, grandfather to fourth-grader Alex, said he simply signed Alex up as a way for him to get involved at school.
"Alex is a very picky eater, very finicky; he doesn't eat a lot of fruits and vegetables," Young said. "It's going to be interesting to see how he fits into this."
Klemm is open to anything that could improve students' health habits - even video games.
"It does seem contradictory, but so many kids are technologically based now, even us as teachers and coordinators are learning more tech-savvy things to reach them," she said. "The whole point of the game is relating back to your daily life.
"We always say eat healthy on testing days, but we should be doing that every day of the year because we're learning every day of the year."
Speaking to Finch parents, Beasley recommended they limit their children's time playing the game each day based on their amount of physical activity, and revealed findings that point to the benefits of video-game learning.
If the six-week study proves successful as it did in El Paso, the electronic quest - not children's waistbands - could expand.
"Our goal is to distribute the game as widely as possible with funding," she said. "We'd love to push it out to all kids throughout the U.S."