June 2011 Issue

An Artsy Education — RD Combines Nutrition and Creative Expression to Best Teach Students
By Leara Angello
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 6 P. 20

When was the last time you used glue or glitter in the classroom? The creative learning environment many of us experienced as elementary school children evolved into a more rigid format of lectures and note taking during our higher education years. Instead of offering students art, music, recess, story time, and an afternoon nap, the adolescent and adult learning environment is a more structured affair, with instructors acting as the omniscient educators and the students as their disciples. But without resources to engage their creative senses, are the students mere Charlie Brown characters—that is, are they missing the teachers’ intended messages (and maybe still getting those afternoon naps)?

Andy Culbertson, MS, RD, CLE, founder of Nutrition Arts (http://nutritionarts.com), a northern California-based nutrition education resource that provides education to both students and clients seeking nutrition information, improved health, or lifestyle change in many settings (eg, single-time and ongoing courses, counseling sessions), believes it’s time for nutrition educators to pick up the paintbrushes and even engage in a little storytelling to ensure more successful learning.

Culbertson says RDs need to step down from the role of teacher and take on the role of facilitator to interact with individuals of all learning styles. “We tend to learn better when we feel relaxed and connected to others. This need can be met by building trust in the facilitator as a guide and expert, along with calm music, natural materials and props, laughter, and creative art projects. Appealing to a variety of learning styles in class helps [people] learn the topic in a deeper and more personal way and to make lasting changes toward wellness,” she says.

“The cultural arts … provide a learning environment where creativity can flourish,” she adds. “The more hands-on and colorful the class, the more it seems to appeal to the students’ creativity and ability to embrace key nutrition concepts.”

Creativity Takes Many Forms
Culbertson’s workshops and lessons feature healthful snacks (eg, vegetables, fruits, nuts) and hands-on activities, with music, art, and interpersonal communication acting as vehicles for lasting change. The first portion of a workshop or class is comprised of a sequence of hands-on activities; the second portion is dedicated to the larger craft project, which Culbertson says “brings together the learning points in the class packaged as a take-home souvenir.”

An example of Culbertson’s souvenir projects is the Eating Local Lunch Box activity, for which participants decorate a recycled Altoid tin with images of vegetables and fruits. Smaller activities follow with colorful handouts including information such as “the benefits of eating local, tips on identifying a whole food … and the criterion for a healthy lunch,” says Culbertson.

The information is presented on small panels that the students can cut out and paste on one side of an accordion-style foldout paper, which they then paste inside the tin. On the other side of the paper, they have space to jot down their own plan for six healthful lunches and a fitness activity based on the lessons they’ve learned. Culbertson attaches a magnet to the back of the tins so the students can place them on their refrigerator door or somewhere in their workplace—the places they’re needed most, she says.

As an example of a storytelling activity, participants think of a memorable experience they had eating a vegetable, a fruit, or an herb that they hand picked, selected at a farmers’ market, or purchased at the supermarket. Culbertson asks them to draw a picture of this experience and write a description of it (eg, why they enjoyed the food) and then share it with the individual next to them or aloud with the class. Afterward, she asks the students to stand up when she calls out the type of experience they chose so the class can see which type of memorable experience is most prevalent. Culbertson says the activity “connects [the learners] with each other and the topic” and also “visually compares the most appealing type of experience.”

Nicole Pogrund, a WIC International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and breast-feeding coordinator and one of Culbertson’s former students, found the classroom environment far more stimulating than the typical “boring, rather dry training.” In Culbertson’s class, she says, “The experience itself is the focus.”

Integrating different types of learning (eg, auditory, visual, kinesthetic) “brought up new ideas to people about their food choices” because they were able to go into the classroom with an open mind and without feeling prejudged, Pogrund explains. She says students were able to consider change because they didn’t put up the immediate defensive barrier that they tend to create when told they can’t eat certain foods.

Jennigan Foster, who took one of Culbertson’s classes on eating locally, also believes she gained more from the creative learning environment, specifically from the storytelling portion. “[The program] gave me different ways of remembering the information—hearing it, visualizing it.” She says being able to conjure up a mental picture or tie a memory to the lesson was an important learning tool.

Role of Evaluation
“Class evaluations with questions and space for opinions, suggestions, and ideas are an important way of getting feedback on the classes and improving them,” notes Culbertson. “I have modified my class evaluation sheet several times over the last year to find the best ways to help learners leave the class feeling satisfied and enriched.”

Recently, Culbertson incorporated her hands-on teaching method in a lesson about healthful fats. By allowing participants to cook their own lunch, among other activities, Culbertson received clear results: The participants expressed that the hands-on experience was their favorite of all the classes they’d had.

For Culbertson, the real measure of success was when one of the learners she considered “tricky to reach” helped herself to seconds of the meal. The participants not only enjoyed the class more but took more away from the lesson because they were directly involved in the class and in their own food preparation.

In one of her current class series, Culbertson asked participants to fill out a card detailing what they ate for breakfast; she also took standard health measurements such as BMI. “What we’re hoping to see in the next few months is changes in what they’re writing down on their cards as well as discussions in the class about what changes they’ve made,” she explains.

Wider Applicability
Based on observations from the hundreds of hands-on classes she has taught, Culbertson has come to consider her program a type of holistic learning with a wider applicability. “[The creative environment] helps learning because it’s a safe platform that’s indirect where somebody can express their desires, their needs, and they can explore them as well,” which makes it an ideal environment for nutrition counseling in addition to education, she says.

RDs working in myriad settings can incorporate hands-on, creative activities similar to Culbertson’s, even on a limited budget. As an example of a simple project that they can carry out on a larger scale, Culbertson references a lean protein project for which she asked participants to Xerox a copy of their hand. (The recommended protein serving size is equal to the palm of the hand.) Learners then wrote the health benefits of including a healthful protein source at each meal on the palm and examples of those foods on the fingers; the craft served as a memento and nutrition reminder they could post at home.

“You could use a simple outline [of the hand], but then your next step might be to get a Xeroxed copy of the hand because it gives a little more detail and it’s more three dimensional,” Culbertson suggests. “If you wanted to take that a step further … you could actually do a full body outline. Then you could do artwork on the hand, talking about lean protein, [and] then you could do some work in the heart area or work on the area of the body that [the students] want to focus on.”

RDs should be sure to incorporate equal amounts of presentation and interaction, based on continued evaluation. “It doesn’t seem like just presenting information as it is on its own … is enough for most people to really get them engaged and actually do something differently after the training,” Pogrund notes. Culbertson’s class environment, she says, effectively encourages students to make significant changes.

Foster and Pogrund believe Culbertson’s program would be very useful in a counseling setting. “In a counseling session, I could absolutely see having a craft or integrating some creative ideas … [the client] wouldn’t feel so judged; it would be fun and feel cooperative,” says Pogrund.

Foster would like the program to expand on a national level: “I would love to see it in schools so that children could learn [nutrition] from a young age.”

— Leara Angello is an editorial intern at Great Valley Publishing Company.