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AHS researchers adapt iPALS for the COVID-19 world

Nothing in 2020 has gone according to anyone’s expectations, because of the pandemic. But thanks to some adaptation and innovation from College of Applied Health Sciences researchers and their cross-campus collaborators, Champaign County schoolchildren are learning some new life skills.

The Illinois Physical Activity and Life Skills Wellness Program, or iPALS for short, engages children in kindergarten through fifth grade in both physical activity and nutrition instruction. But according to KCH assistant professor K. Andrew R. Richards, iPALS was forced to undergo a COVID-related makeover.

“What we're doing now is not what we had intended to do,” he said. “We'd been funded on an Illinois State Board of Education grant to run a summer program, an in-person, face-to-face summer camp style program in collaboration with (Champaign) Unit 4 (schools) that was going to be hosted at one of the local elementary schools. And we'd have about 150 kids that would come and spend the day with us for five consecutive weeks. And so that was the original plan, but then COVID happened. And all of that went out the window.”

With summer programming canceled by the University of Illinois and the school district, Richards and his collaborators were faced with a choice of having to spend the money by the end of this semester or having to return it to the state.

“And so that kind of left us with this decision, do we want to return the money?,” he said, “Or do we want to find some way to do some good with this in the local community to help children and family in the time of this pandemic, when health, and nutrition, and wellness are perhaps even more important than they ever have been?”

That’s where some of Richards’ collaborators come in, including fellow KCH assistant professor Naiman Khan, and graduate students in KCH and the Division of Nutritional Sciences. For example, Richards credits KCH doctoral student Shelby Ison for developing multiple options for a fall version of iPALS that included some face-to-face elements as well as virtual and asynchronous plans.

Richards and Khan then worked with Champaign Unit 4 Schools Director of Student, Family & Community Engagement, Katina Wilcher, about opportunities to engage more with the community.

“We brainstormed schools that might benefit most, developed a framework, the two agencies co-wrote a grant, and here we are,” Wilcher said in an email. “Of course, we had to adjust due to COVID, but the University did an outstanding job coming up with an alternative virtual program that is going well.”

IPALS has existed at UIUC in some form since the 1950s, Richards said, and at one point was called the Sport Fitness Program. It was once a multi-activity sport program, but Richards et al recognized iPALS needed to be more responsive to wellness in a broader sense. So, while there continues to be a physical activity component, they’ve added a social and emotional learning component, and a nutrition and wellness component.

Annabelle Shaffer, a master’s student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, helped craft the nutrition element, part of which involves videos.

“They'll get a video … basically just why you should hydrate,” she said. “What types of drinks are best for hydration, things like that. And then for their activity they'll be provided cooking video that we're making in collaboration with the ARC Instructional Kitchen, who has primarily dietetics and human nutrition undergrads teaching the courses. So they'll create the cooking class video with the recipes given to them. And also we provide all the food for the kids with the socially distanced pickups.”

One-hundred and 10 children are participating in the program, which runs until Nov. 12. For the cooking program, they receive a set of child-safe knives, a spatula, their own mixing bowls, their own measuring spoons and cups.

“We wanted to be able to engage them in both physical activity and nutrition instruction,” Richards said. “But because we're targeting primarily communities affected by poverty, we didn't want to have to rely on them to have things that they were going to need.”

The researchers stressed that parents are involved in most aspects of the program, while still allowing their children to have creative freedom.

“Our current program is six weeks long, and each week students participate in three virtual activities through platforms such as Flipgrid and Edpuzzle. Each of the 3 activities have a different objective,” Ison said. “Activity 1 is designed to facilitate peer-to-peer social and emotional learning, Activity 2 is meant to educate children on physical activity and nutrition, and Activity 3 is the application of the learnings from Activity 2 where students work with their family members to complete a physical activity or nutrition activity or challenge.”

Khan, whose research interests focus in most part on nutrition, said one set of research outcomes would be “qualitative and getting an idea of the experience of the children participating in the program. We have an interest in our lab with physical health and mental and cognitive health in kids. So the Fitbits, for example, will be used to assess students' physical activity.

“We'll use a survey approach for them to report their nutritional intake. There's a survey also on nutrition literacy that we've concluded to get an idea of their knowledge of foods and healthy eating. And some additional surveys that we have in place for understanding the home environment, in terms of just commotion and chaos in the household, some demographic information.”

The researchers plan to replicate iPALS next summer, although they’re uncertain if they’ll be able to host children in person. But they certainly hope for bigger grants as they go forward.

“If we were able to use what we're learning and down the road leverage that towards larger, perhaps federal grant structures, then that might be able to set us up so we'd have funding for consecutive years,” Richards said.

“I feel like we're in a position now, having been through this, where we won't be going into that blind and trying to create the wheel while we're driving the car. We'll have the car created. And we can just gas it up along the way.”

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