YMCA of Rock River Valley: Healthy Kids, Healthy Families

Before COVID, a YMCA program to improve family habits was important enough. But after a pandemic pause revealed an even greater need, families in the Rockford area are coming together to build their relationships while learning how to make healthy habits into a routine.

The YMCA’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Family program brings parents and their children together as they develop better nutrition, exercise and communication habits while having fun. (YMCA of Rock River Valley photos)

Nearly four years ago, the YMCA of Rock River Valley launched a Healthy Kids, Healthy Family program. Its goal: to teach kids ages 7-13 and their parents about healthy eating and encourage them to engage together in fun activities.

Sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, this program is now back in full swing and its organizers realize it’s needed now more than ever before. When the pandemic limited kids’ abilities to participate in extracurricular activities, many families fell into more sedentary lifestyles.

“Obesity rates rose with nearly everyone, but our focus is on youth,” says Mya Williams, evidence-based health interventions coordinator for the YMCA of Rock River Valley. “Now, after 2020, the childhood obesity rate in the United States is 19.2%. We had families telling us their kids had been sitting at home for almost two years, and the PE in schools wasn’t enough. So, we took a holistic approach and decided to tweak the program a bit so it focused on improving the health of the family as a whole.”

The Healthy Kids, Healthy Family program is funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois.

“The YMCA of Rock River Valley conducted research within the community to identify a need for the program and found that childhood obesity was largely prevalent in the Rockford area. This was backed by the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois,” says Williams. “We then created the program through evidence-based practices that we see through physical activity and nutritional habits in school-age children.”

Families participating in the 12-week program meet twice a week. On Tuesday evenings there’s a 90-minute classroom-type session where families learn about nutrition, healthy snacking, the importance of exercise, and how to set healthy goals. Friday’s hourlong session incorporates games that encourage communication and physical activity.

The course starts with an intake survey asking participants about their habits, goals, and overall physical and mental health. “We take a look at that again at the end of the course and compare and contrast each family to see how they’ve improved and what they might still need to work on,” Williams says.

Classes are kept relatively small – Williams says an ideal class size would be about 12 families – so instructors can engage with everyone in a meaningful way and answer questions as they arise.

“We want to focus on fun activities kids can do with their parents,” she says, adding that one of the participants’ favorite games is Dragon Tail.

“It’s kind of like flag football mixed with a game of tag,” Williams says. “The leaders cue who’s going to be chasing and who’s going to be running. We randomly tell them to stop, reverse, and do other things so they’re getting their cardiovascular exercise while also having to communicate and listen.”

She says the adults can be as competitive as the kids.

“It’s really fun watching everyone get into these games and start to apply the nutritional content that we talked about,” Williams says. Better yet, the games are designed to help parents and kids communicate better with one another.

A YMCA membership is not required to participate in the class, but members do get a discount. There are currently spring and fall sessions, but an abbreviated summer session is under consideration.

Although it was founded to combat childhood obesity, Williams says this is not a weight loss program for kids. “It’s a fun and innovative way to get families to connect while also learning healthy habits. It’s a multi-dimensional program that I think is really needed in this area.”