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It’s not all about sex

March 9, 2015

It’s not all about sex. Why Ontario’s new Health and Physical Education curriculum is good for kids and parents
The Government of Ontario recently released the new Health and Physical Education curriculum for public schools prompting a vigorous – and at times emotional – discussion about plans to teach sexual health.
While updates to the sexual health section are sensible and overdue – especially in the context of bullying, smart phones, and the pervasiveness of sexual violence – it is but one component of the curriculum which is intended to prepare students to be healthy citizens.  The fact is this curriculum addresses many aspects of health and wellbeing.
As both guardians of public health and contributors to the design of the new curriculum, it is important to us that the public understand the full breadth of the changes. It would be a mistake to limit the discourse on health and physical education in Ontario’s schools.
Establishing healthy practices early in life will have positive long-term benefits for not only individual students but society as a whole. Moreover, there is an urgency to update the curriculum to help young people make smart choices and recognize and manage some unhealthy environments. Consider:
o   a paltry 4% of children aged 12-17 are able to meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of  60 minutes of daily vigorous physical activity
o   approximately 70% of children aged four to eight and 65% aged nine to 13  do not consume the recommended daily minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables
o   more students rate their mental health as fair or poor than did students a few years ago
o   one in ten students report a video gaming problem
o   the prevalence of heavy drinking among youth, including those 13 and under,  has been increasing
Grounded in solid public health principles, the curriculum was developed by experts in public health, education, child psychology, nutrition, and physical activity. It was the subject of extensive consultation. It is backed by science.
It is the first such review and renewal of health content in a generation; before smart phones and caffeinated energy drinks, before the internet and online gaming, and during which the challenges created by issues such as urban sprawl have proliferated.
In developing the content, two important factors were considered:
1) The reality of social determinants of health such as an individual’s income, education, gender, culture, physical and social environment, access to health services, personal health practices and coping skills. These issues influence not only whether a person is physically healthy, but also the extent to which he or she will have the physical, social, and personal resources needed to identify and achieve personal aspirations and cope with challenges. They also directly impact on student learning and contribute to his or her academic performance.
2) The health knowledge gained by students in their formative years and the choices they make will have long-term societal impacts. Understanding the factors that contribute to healthy development, a sense of personal responsibility for lifelong health, and a respect of their own health in relation to others and the world around them will help foster healthier communities for everyone. This means making informed choices on issues like eating, drinking and smoking, becoming more active, using better conflict resolution skills, and advocating for healthier environments will result in less resources needed for preventable  health care costs.
The curriculum will strengthen health literacy, giving students the skills and knowledge they need to develop, maintain and enjoy healthy living. They will learn to set goals for their personal health and wellbeing throughout their lives and about the connections between healthy choices, societal influences, and the type of environments needed to support their wellbeing. This emphasis on health promotion and chronic disease prevention will pay greater social and fiscal dividends for Ontario over the long run than our current emphasis on disease treatment.
In addition to reinforcing best practices on healthy eating and physical activity, the modern curriculum teaches cultural sensitivity, addresses issues like body image, poverty, online gambling and mental health and wellbeing. Discussions will be held in settings that are accepting, inclusive, and respectful.
These changes are good news for our students, and for all Ontarians. We applaud the government for its leadership. Those of us in the field of public health look forward to continuing to work with schools on the implementation of this progressive curriculum that supports students, our health care system, and our communities.
Most importantly, we look forward to living in a healthier Ontario, which is exactly what this new curriculum intends to achieve.
Pegeen Walsh is Executive Director of the Ontario Public Health Association