A Lexington doctor stands before 50 restless second-graders who have been herded into Maxwell Elementary School’s cafeteria. Her mission is to keep their attention for an hour and teach them the importance of exercising, eating right and not smoking.
It would seem a daunting task, even for a veteran teacher. But Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl has a secret weapon: squares of red and pink paper, which the children will fold into hearts.
Cerel-Suhl developed a lesson called Kids Art 4 Hearts, which she has volunteered to teach more than two dozen times at elementary and middle schools, churches and special events across Kentucky.
Children learn three basic heart-health concepts — let’s move, eat right, don’t smoke — as well as something about origami, the Japanese art of paper-folding.
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Cerel-Suhl is a longtime volunteer with the American Heart Association. It celebrates “heart month” each February to focus public attention on cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack and stroke.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America, claiming more than 780,000 lives a year. Kentucky consistently ranks among the top 10 states for cardiovascular disease, with one of the nation’s highest rates of smoking.
The best way to fight disease is prevention. “And the way to accomplish prevention is to start with kids,” Cerel-Suhl said.
She has long been interested in how the arts improve science and math education, and she’s not alone. Across the country, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are becoming STEAM programs in recognition of art’s importance in teaching creativity and problem-solving.
Cerel-Suhl’s inspiration for this project came from a friend, Martin Demaine, artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her son is a student.
Demaine’s son, Erik, is an MIT computer science professor and former MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner. They received a Guggenheim fellowship to study how origami might help scientists make breakthroughs in everything from pharmaceuticals to engineering. Cerel-Suhl helped arrange an exhibit of their origami sculptures at the University of Kentucky Art Museum in 2013.
She also got help from local artist friends: renowned painter Andre Pater and Sayre School art teacher Anne Allen. Paper for her origami hearts is donated by Bluegrass Integrated and Stout Printing.
“Origami is like chess; it teaches children about math and problem-solving,” Cerel-Suhl said. “There’s a lot of cross-brain training with this lesson: listen, watch, collaborate. They’re also learning motor skills, planning and patience.”
She began the lesson at Maxwell by outlining the three concepts. As often happens, smoking generated the most discussion among the children.
“It’s a drug like any other drug, so it's really important not to start,” Cerel-Suhl told them. “Because if you start, your brain starts to think you need it, even though it’s really bad for you. Does that make sense?”
“Yes!” yelled the children. Several of them then wanted to share stories of relatives who had quit smoking, or tried to. One boy said his father quit after realizing his smoking was bad for the entire family.
“Isn’t that great?” the doctor replied. “It's really hard to quit. Sometimes grownups have to try three or four times before they succeed.”
It empowers kids to know that people who love them are struggling with these things.
Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl, physician and educator
Then she got down to origami. Cerel-Suhl asked the children to work in pairs and led them through 10 folds that would turn the paper square into a heart. She explained the difference between “mountain” and “valley” folds and paused after each fold to impart a piece of the health lesson.
“Whisper in your shoulder buddy’s ear one thing you like to do to move,” she said, sending them into animated conversations about running, jumping and biking.
“Whisper in your shoulder buddy’s ear your favorite vegetable,” she said, which sent the kids into discussions about foods they considered yummy or yucky.
When the children had folded two sides of their paper hearts, Cerel-Suhl held up her own and asked, “Does this heart look perfect?”
“No!” the kids yelled.
“Are people perfect?” she asked.
“No!” they yelled again.
“Exactly,” she said. “The No. 1 serious problem men and women have that makes them need a doctor is with their hearts. Now you get to be like a doctor and make this heart better.”
Then she guided them through four final folds to refine their heart’s shape.
After that “practice” heart, they worked in pairs to make a second heart, which would be assembled into a school art installation. Then they made a third heart to keep, first writing inside something they want to do at home to achieve one of the heart-health goals. That take-home heart is the most important, Cerel-Suhl said, because it gives kids a way to start family conversations.
“Kids can say, ‘We’ve learned how to care for our hearts and we want you to take care of yours,’” she said. “It empowers kids to know that people who love them are struggling with these things.”