School-age children explore healthy nutrition and lifestyle with Healthy Buddy Programme
UNICEF, Ministry of Health and Family Academy support school-age children to adopt a healthy lifestyle
Healthy Buddy programme has come a long way since its launch in the fall of 2019. UNICEF, Ministry of Health of Armenia and Family Academy NGO had designed it aiming to inspire children to adopt a lifestyle that is healthy mentally and physically and fit for their development and wellbeing. By the spring of 2020, Healthy Buddy reached 15 communities in Armenia’s Syunik, Vayots Dzor, Gegharkunik, Armavir and Ararat regions.
This year, partners have relaunched it after a long pause due the school closures and the pandemic. Healthy Buddy will again deliver its entertaining and competitive education sessions for school-age children from Shirak region and continue until November to reach children in 35 communities in Kotayk, Aragatsotn, Lori, Tavush and Yerevan.
“We tend to talk about Healthy Buddy as if it were a human being. The idea came when we collaborated with Anush Aleksanyan. As a psychologist, she suggested to focus on a perceivable character who could embody a healthy lifestyle and help to motivate children,” recalls Mary Nersisyan, President of Family Academy. “Now before each session, we explain who Healthy Buddy is to children - a young person like them, who has dreams, knows how to set goals and achieve them, a health advocate who understands the current demands and pressures on children and knows that healthy nutrition will provide them with the needed strength and energy to thrive.”
Healthy Buddy, or Aroghjamartik in Armenian, is an extracurricular session designed in two tracks for schoolchildren aged 6-9 and 12-15. The session uses competitive gaming methods, facilitated by Mary Nersisyan and nutritionist Lidia Ayvazyan, who explain how and when foods can be detrimental to one’s health and development, the repercussions of too much salt, sugary or fat intake in our diets. Students in the 6-9 age group then compete in groups to distinguish the types of food in the food pyramid or how to put together a healthy, balanced meal or how the project team calls it – a healthy plate.
“For the 6-9 age group, the concept of a ‘healthy plate’ is a real discovery, and we explain it with the help of a game when they learn how to size the portions and balance the plate in order to eat enough veggies, protein or carb-rich foods. In this way, children ‘play’ and put to practice what they already learned minutes ago,” explains Lidia Ayvazyan, nutritionist. “At home, children of 6–9 are rarely the decision-maker on what will be served to them at the dinner table that day. They learn to follow the family food habits but often get to ask for or get specific snacks that parents usually buy into, such as chips, sugary snacks or carbonated drinks. During our sessions, children learn, for instance, why they need water instead of carbonated drinks and the key to managing their food cravings.”
This time around, the Healthy Buddy sessions are joined by Vahram Gabrielyan, pediatrician, who is on a mission to talk to children about COVID-19. Together with Vahram, children review the “My Hero is You” storybook for children on COVID-19, developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee reference group on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings, that motivates them to fight off the pandemic fatigue. Children then end the session with getting a Healthy Buddy magnetic sticker and their copy of the Healthy Plate that will motivate them to keep on practicing what they learned at home.
“Our dietary habits are formed in childhood, and if they are relatively easy to control during infancy and preschool, later on at school or during adolescence, it becomes very hard for parents to have a complete picture of what their children eat. During these sessions, we focus not just on what to eat but also on how to eat healthy, so that children have full information about forming healthy eating and snacking habits,” noted Liana Hovakimyan, UNICEF Health Specialist.
Gor Petrosyan, Healthy Buddy facilitator for adolescents, adds “Dietary habits are a culture that does not develop overnight, however, we do our best to empower adolescents with information on how to manage their life, set goals and plan ahead, from living a healthy lifestyle to identifying community issues and taking steps to solve them.” The Healthy Buddy session for adolescents addresses a whole system of questions from the general lifestyle of the family and sleep patterns to physical activity and exercising.