If early childhood educators believe that much of what a child learns in life, he learns before the age of six, then why do we sometimes fail to teach children good health habits? Isn’t a healthy body as vital to growth and development as a healthy mind?
What can we do to improve our children’s health habits? In this article, we’ll discuss how teachers and parents can work together to foster a lifetime of good health for young children.
As a kindergarten teacher I watched, day after day, an overweight five-year-old unpack his lunch consisting of store-bought cookies, cakes, potato chips, and a soft drink. He never unpacked a piece of fruit, sliced vegetables, or even a sandwich. The reason: “He won’t eat anything but sweets or chips,” replied his mother. “And how did he learn to eat only ‘sweets and chips?’” I asked. “That’s all he eats at home!” answered his Mom.
Data shows that one-in-three American children have a weight problem. And approximately one-third of all obese preschoolers will remain obese as adults. According to Teresa Quattrin, MD, Professor of Pediatrics at State University at Buffalo, New York, incidence of Type II diabetes has risen as a result of the high prevalence of obesity. If left untreated, Type II diabetes can result in various debilitating conditions, including blindness or even death. Except for those children for whom obesity is a medical condition, excess weight is simply the result of taking in more calories than necessary to maintain growth. As a result, health is impaired and self-esteem suffers. As early childhood professionals, we can help identify children at risk for obesity and work with parents to help children make healthful food choices and incorporate physical activity into the daily routine.
One way teachers and parents can help combat childhood obesity is by offering nutritious meals and snacks. The food guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture places food in a pyramid shape consisting of five groups. Updated in 1999, the new food guide reports that preschoolers need six servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta; three servings of vegetables; two servings of meats, poultry, fish, dry beans, and eggs; two servings of fruit; two servings of milk, yogurt, and cheese; and minimal fats, oil, and sugar. Even snacks should not consist of junk food or be empty of calories. Try including wholesome foods such as milk and milk products, 100 percent fruit juice, dried fruit, fruit shakes, raw vegetables, and cold cereal in your program’s mid-morning and afternoon snacks.
Another way to teach nutrition is to get children involved in making their own snacks. If children help in food preparation, they’re more willing to eat—or at least try just one bite. The following recipes are fun, require no heat or hot surfaces, and most importantly are nutritious.
· Ants on a Log. Wash celery stalks. Using a plastic knife, cut into three-inch pieces. Spread peanut butter in the crevice of the celery stalk. You can substitute the peanut butter with cream cheese for children with peanut-related allergies. Once you’ve spread the cream cheese or peanut butter, allow the children to add the “ants.” Encourage the children to count the number of raisins they add to the celery stalk.
· Happy Face Sandwich. Cut slices of whole-wheat bread into circles and toast. Spread a thin layer of peanut butter or apple butter over the bread. Cut circles from a banana. Invite the children to make a face by using the bananas to create two eyes and a mouth.
· Fruit Smoothie. Pour one cup milk into a blender. Add fruit (three large strawberries, one small banana, or 1/3-cup blueberries), one teaspoon of sugar or sweetener and four ice cubes. Blend until smooth. Once the smoothie has been blended, invite the children to help pour the mixture into cups.
· Fruit or Cheese Towers. Prior to the activity, cut an assortment of fruit and cheese into small cubes. Provide colored toothpicks. Combine with a math lesson by inviting the children to make a pattern with two or three items.
Watching a group of preschoolers climbing and tumbling through a play station, I noticed one obese youngster did not participate. Standing near the slide, she watched her friends climb the ladder but was obviously hesitant to join them. Why? She was afraid to climb for fear of falling. Even at this young age she felt different due to her size and feeling different lowered her self-esteem. What changes can teachers and parents make that will influence children to exercise?
· Become a role model. As a teacher or parent, your attitude determines how children view this activity. Show enthusiasm for physical and outdoor play activities. Play a game of chase with the children or join a game of catch. The children will take your lead and enjoy being a part of the fun.
· Schedule time each day for gross motor activities. Make running, jumping, swinging, or anything that uses the large muscles of the body a part of your daily curriculum.
· Make exercise fun. Put on some fast-paced music and move like animals (crawling, wiggling, swimming, galloping, and hopping). Play a recording of wind blowing, waves breaking on the beach, or a thunderstorm and dance to the music.
· Provide age-appropriate playground equipment. When children feel free to explore and use creative play, exercise becomes a natural outlet.
· Ensure children’s safety. Always lead the children in a few warm-up stretches before conducting physical activities. In addition, provide performance-certified helmets when riding bicycles in your program. Encourage parents to purchase bicycle helmets for their children for use at home, too.
· Plan a daily walk. Choose a path that is safe for the children and in light-traffic areas. Focus your walk on a new discovery or an interesting object such as a bird’s nest, trees budding, or a flower in bloom near your building. Both you and your children will benefit from the exercise and your observations in nature.
Elizabeth, a four-year-old in my preschool, arrived each morning seemingly exhausted. If she became quiet and still for a few minutes, I would find her asleep. Concerned about this behavior, I spoke with her mother. “When is your daughter’s bedtime? Elizabeth seems to need a nap soon after she arrives.” I asked. “Oh, we really don’t have a set time. She cries to stay up as late as everyone else in the family. When she falls asleep on the floor by the television, her dad picks her up and carries her to bed.”
Even as babies, all children do not require the same amount of sleep. While one child may need 10 hours per night, another has energy to spare on eight, even without a nap! Yet, parents must set rules about bedtime. Allowing a child to play until falling asleep on the floor each night takes the control from the parents and gives it to the child. As a teacher, how do you help parents get a child to bed without nagging or fussing? Offer the following suggestions:
· Avoid rough or noisy play within an hour of bedtime.
· Establish a regular schedule that includes a bath, brushing teeth, and reading a story to younger children or allowing older children to read a few minutes before turning off the light.
· Use a night-light if the child feels more secure.
· Tuck the child in and say, “I love you” each night.
Because children need time for rest, teachers should plan a daily nap or a period of quiet without a planned activity. Some children may only want to lie on their mats and look at books. Others will drift into a deep and restful slumber.
Children who receive adequate rest and sleep function better in school. Allowing the body time to rest helps make one physically fit and good sleep habits begin early in life. Of course, insufficient sleep is only one problem teachers may observe. Families who involve their children in too many activities cause undue fatigue.
Avoiding Fatigue and Over-Scheduling
As a couple of fathers picked up their kindergarten children, I overheard the following conversation. “Let’s see, this is Monday afternoon. That means today we go to soccer practice. Tuesday is music lesson. Or, is music on Wednesday? Anyway, I know swimming is Thursday so that definitely makes Friday T-ball.” Is it any wonder that I noticed that his child was simply exhausted?
A constant state of fatigue may have many causes, one of which may be insufficient sleep. But when too many planned activities are scheduled for young children, they experience mental and physical fatigue. Is child fatigue a concern in your program? If so, ask your parents the following questions regarding their child’s daily schedule.
· Is adequate time allowed for rest and relaxation?
· Do your children have a choice in daily activities and play?
· Are your children positive and happy about life?
Children, and adults for that matter, who wash their hands often with warm, soapy water pick up fewer colds and other illnesses. Teach children good hygiene by explaining how to wash and when to wash. For example, you should always wash after:
· Using the bathroom
· Blowing the nose
· Before eating
· Handling money
· Being in a public place
In addition, make a sequence chart showing the proper techniques for washing. Then, do a “pretend” activity, using the song at the end of the article.
Many preschool programs practice oral hygiene as part of the daily curriculum by having the children brush their teeth after breakfast and lunch. Teachers can role model proper brushing techniques by demonstrating the procedure of squirting toothpaste on the brush, holding the brush correctly, and setting a timer to indicate how long to brush. In addition, encourage parents to use fluoride toothpaste, keep regular dental checkups for their children, and read books about “my friend the dentist.” To lessen the fears associated with dentists, talk to the children about how the dentist helps us care for our teeth and invite a neighborhood dentist to your classroom.
Making a Difference
How can teachers help parents instill good health habits in their children? Schedule workshops focusing on children’s health, develop a parent lending library of resource health books, foster communication between teachers and parents, and encourage families to uncover the hidden causes of stress. Like other skills, good health habits are learned.
Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught early childhood education at Union University. She writes for numerous educational magazines.
Schmitt, Barton D. (1991). Your Child's Health: The Parents’ Guide to Symptoms, Emergencies, Common Illnesses, Behavior and School Problems.
USDA Home and Garden Bulletin 232-8, 1989.
Games, Songs and Rhymes for Healthy Bodies
(Sing to the tune of “This is the Way I Go to School”)
This is the way I try new foods, (pretend to pick up food and eat)
Try new foods, try new foods.
This is the way I try new foods
Each and every day.
This is the way I wash my hands, (pretend to use soap, rub hands together and rinse)
Wash my hands, wash my hands.
This is the way I wash my hands,
Several times a day.
(Sing to the tune of “Ten Little Indians”)
One little, two little, three little children,
Four little, five little, six little children,
Seven little, eight little, nine little children,
Ten little children—running.*
(*change to skipping, hopping, crawling, etc.)
What Am I Doing? Game
This game encourages stretching, exercise, teaches body parts and develops listening skills.
Say: “Listen and watch. Do what I do.”
Sit on the floor,
Pull your foot,
Bend at the waist.
After playing a few times, select another child as the leader. Encourage the child to select different tasks.