Impact of School Architecture on School Practices and Healthy Eating

Researchers are working with architects to create a school environment that improves student well-being. Dr. Matthew Trowbridge of U.Va.’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Terry Huang of the University of Nebraska’s College of Public Health will evaluate whether innovations such as a teaching kitchen, soil lab and nutrition resource library will impact the eating behaviors of school children at Buckingham Elementary in Dillwyn.

The researchers collaborated with VMDO Architects of Charlottesville to develop a set of healthful eating guidelines for school architecture based on public health evidence and theory. The set of specifications call for innovations like kitchens conducive to preparing fresh and organic food; design that encourages relaxation and socialization at meal times; and signage and programming that reinforce nutrition education.

“We wanted to create optimal school environments to promote healthy eating behaviors,” Trowbridge said. “Opportunities to directly concentrate on children’s learning environments are long overdue in the fight against obesity, which has been a priority public health issue for 20 years. But prevention has met with only limited success.”

Funding will allow the researchers to evaluate application of the recommendations in a real-world environment for the first time at Buckingham Elementary this fall.

“School-based obesity prevention programs have received considerable attention, but the physical environment of the school has not,” Trowbridge said. “This also provides an opportunity to pilot the concept of linking obesity prevention to green buildings. This focus on the environment and policy-based intervention will be critical in making a significant impact on childhood obesity trends.”

To effectively implement these environmental components, the researchers and VMDO worked together as the school was rebuilt from the ground up. Maggie Thacker, VMDO’s director of marketing and business development, said that their objectives have been multifaceted. “Our goal is to embrace the whole child,” she said. “Environmental stewardship, eco-literacy, sustainable design, health and well-being, movement and activity – each of these educational opportunities are interwoven throughout the school’s interior and landscape, making a rich experience for students and teachers alike.”

Throughout the site, Thacker said, the school fosters teachable moments within the landscape, boasting walkable paths; vegetable, fruit and nut gardens; science garden labs; a composting station; and a “frog bog,” to name a few of the school’s features.

“There is a long history in developmental psychology research that the role of classroom design can impact social behaviors,” Trowbridge said. “This project takes well-established theoretical frameworks from these educational research fields and applies them to health promotion.”

Researchers hope the project will encourage teachers, staff and the community to engage more deeply in teaching children about healthful food and eating. They also hope to inspire more collaboration of this type.

“It’s an amazing building and it’s an incredibly positive statement of hope and investment for kids in this rural school district who typically haven’t received this kind of support,” Trowbridge said. “Youth-Nex has allowed for a real-world implementation and evaluation of these highly collaborative and cutting-edge guidelines.”

 Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPF - University of Virginia, Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine;
Terry T-K Huang, Ph.D., MPH - Professor and Chair, Department of Health Promotion & Social and Behavioral Health, College of Public Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center

VMDO Architects' Project Description

Awards and Other 2012 Seed-funded projects

Media: UVA Today