BY JENN BERGIN | PHOTOS BY RITA LA VECK
“There’s no better compliment than to have someone take your idea and then just run with it,” says Wendy Cooper, founder and president of Healthy Highway, an innovative curriculum-based K-5 program that encourages health, fitness and nutrition.
She can be proud – because teachers across the country are doing just that.
Now in its fifth year, Healthy Highway has succeeded in motivating children and families to develop healthy lifestyles, and is changing the way that educators incorporate fitness and nutrition into schools. The school-wide initiative incorporates healthy living into all aspects of education on a daily basis, all year long.
Celebrity chef and TV host Rachel Ray’s nonprofit organization Yum-o!, which empowers kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking, recently recognized Cooper and Healthy Highway on the site’s “How Cool is That?” blog, as an organization making an effort to improve wellness.
A recognized health and fitness expert, Cooper spent 30 years as a physical education teacher, primarily in the Greece school district. It was during her years in the district that she developed PE Rules of the Road, as a curriculum-based program designed to teach children to move safely through the gymnasium using traffic metaphors. The success of the program was the catalyst and creative inspiration for the development of Healthy Highway.
“It just evolved organically,” says Cooper. “I realized it was working and the kids were really responding.”
Each year, Cooper added to the curriculum, gathered feedback and welcomed ideas from her students.
“It just took off,” she says. “I never even knew what I was getting myself into!”
Cooper retired from teaching in 2007. Two weeks later she registered her business by filing for a DBA, and Healthy Highway was officially born.
The Healthy Highway concept is an imaginative and interactive method used to encourage physical exercise and activity, and promote an understanding of healthy foods and basic nutrition. Cooper provides teachers with a complete classroom kit, which includes a curriculum guide complete with lesson plans and activities to “fuel inject” into standard curriculum throughout the year.
The success of the program lies in the fact that it’s been test-driven – developed by a teacher for teachers.
“I can look other educators in the eye and say with confidence that I know it works,” says Cooper. “Because, I did it myself.”
What child doesn’t love cars? This program is centered on the idea of “the road to healthy living” and allows students to track the progress of their “car” by marking stops along an imaginative roadway to wellness. Kids are able to easily relate to the concept of their bodies as fast, shiny cars that need to be taken care of, with engines that need food for fuel.
Healthy Highway makes nutrition fun and easy to talk about and allows for questions such as, “How can I get around a roadblock?” Or metaphors like, “Time to cool-off, and take a moment ‘in the garage’.” Crucial to the program are its posters and visual aides, which include easily recognizable traffic signs such as “Stop” or “One Way,” along with lessons to incorporate activity and encourage safety.
To promote the healthy and easy classification of foods, the kit also includes flash “food” cards which depict common foods as “traffic lights” – green light foods are “every day” foods; yellow light foods are “slow down and think” foods and red light foods are “stop and think” foods.
This symbolism is successful in helping children to develop an understanding of each food’s nutritional value – without talk about diets, “good versus bad,” or the declaration of any food as off-limits. Instead, children learn to be accountable for their choices, and begin to understand that eating a red light food means it will take 25 jumping jacks to burn off, whereas a green light food will only take five. The program easily translates at home and becomes a way for families to also incorporate nutrition and wellness.
As a former educator, Cooper created a program that is easy to implement and simple in its concept. She understands that teachers don’t want to entirely revamp their curriculum or necessarily have time to read packets full of information. Healthy Highway can be tailored to reflect each school’s specific needs and personality, providing a consistent approach and common vocabulary across the school, while also allowing for individuality.
Healthy Highway can be incorporated into all aspects of education and teachers can easily work the program into objectives that already need to be met, without adding a new lesson to teach. For example, a second-grade teacher with the objective of teaching a directional lesson, taught her students to write a recipe. They then learned to make and serve the snack. The music teacher taught students a “food fact” rap, the art teacher helped students make clay foods, and the nurse’s office became a body shop – where kids were reminded to “fuel up” if they felt tired.
“Physical education is so much more that just running around and playing kickball,” says Cooper. “The question becomes, how can we fuel-inject nutrition concepts into any unit of study while still keeping movement a top priority?”
Cooper feels confident in the strength of her program and travels to health and physical education conferences to promote the curriculum. While she admits to a learning curve while discovering the fundamentals of running a business, she feels certain that the framework of Healthy Highway will guarantee its success, and she has had great support working locally with businesses and other educators.
“I’m right at that tipping point – it’s ready to explode,” Cooper says. “That’s how I feel right now.”
Protecting the vision for Healthy Highway and her curriculum ideals is most important for Cooper, as she strives to empower children and their families to make healthy choices. Healthy Highway is now in the 3rd edition of its curriculum and continues to evolve, recently incorporating character education – with street signs depicting “Respect Road,” “Honest Street,” and “Teamwork Avenue.”
The goal is the make New York State a leader in wellness, says Cooper. As a nationwide initiative, she hopes to get one school from every state to sign the “Healthy Highway Pledge” to make one conscious and healthy choice each day.
Not only does Cooper advocate for wellness – but she also practices healthy living in her daily life. Although an unapologetic chocolate lover, she also enjoys outdoor activates like hiking and biking. Always innovative and creative, Cooper is a local pickleball “champion.” Her twenty-something daughters have inherited her love of the tennis-like game played with a wiffle ball, and one will visit from Florida to be her doubles partner September, at the local pickleball tournament at Charlotte Beach.
Wellness is important, but Cooper never forgets the most important component of healthy living – happiness.
“It’s all about laughing and having fun. Healthy Highway is something that both the kids and teachers enjoy,” Cooper says. “That’s always been my philosophy, to keep it fun. And if this can help even one child – it’s worth it.”