Monday, August 6, 2012

Lessons of health, wellness follow children through their lives Read more: The Herald-Sun - Lessons of health wellness follow children through their lives

Who is responsible for solving the problem of childhood obesity? It surely exists. Nearly 10 percent of infants and toddlers have excess weight and almost a third of children are overweight or obese. Research tells us that excessive weight gain in infants and toddlers is more likely to lead to overweight children. And evidence indicates that for children under the age of 6 with a high Body Mass Index (BMI), adult obesity is likely to follow. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 4 percent of elementary schools nationwide offer physical education daily.

The threat of long-term chronic and serious health-related issues aside, childhood obesity impacts school performance and outcomes, including increased school absences, repeating a grade, or lack of academic engagement. And that fact should be reason enough to turn parents and early childhood educators into advocates for childhood obesity prevention.

This past spring, when Durham’s Partnership for Children (the Partnership) participated in the Great Human Race, we asked our supporters to donate funds to the cause of obesity prevention. With the fundraising dollars we collected from our generous donors and advocates in prevention, we purchased health and wellness equipment to distribute to a dozen child care centers across Durham. At the end of this month, as preschoolers enter their pre-kindergarten classrooms, they will see the shiny new equipment we were able to deliver. Some of the new items include gardening equipment and rain barrels, athletic balls, jump ropes and hula hoops. Community members and Partnership staff were eager to assist in enhancing health and wellness practices at these centers.

We believe parents should have high expectations of the facility at which their child receives care and education during the day. 

Among the operation requirements within the child care setting that are regulated by the state – including staff-child ratios, building and space requirements, and sanitation requirements – are health-related activities.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education of the Department of Health and Human Services sets these regulations and ensures our child care facilities are physically safe and healthy environments. Child care settings are required – at a minimum – to provide nutritious meals and snacks at least once every four hours, no less than one hour daily outdoor time, and space and time for rest, as well as limit screen time.

When early childhood professionals use the term “high-quality” in relation to child care, we are referencing 4- and 5-star centers that invest in curriculum and programming that goes beyond the minimum health and safety requirements in providing for young children. These centers are intentional in engaging children in practices that prevent obesity, including utilizing nutrition supports and implementing innovative curriculum that keeps preschoolers and toddlers physically active.

“Nutrition and children being active is a focus area for Child Care Services Association (CCSA),” said Monnie Griggs, Technical Assistance Director at CCSA. Child Care Services Association is one of a number of funded partners of the Partnership, offering programming in early care and education to child care centers across Durham and Orange County. 

CCSA's Meal Service Program provides two nutritious meals plus one nutritious snack per day to children enrolled in participating child care centers. This allows centers to purchase nutritional meals and snacks at cost, without having to maintain expensive kitchens. Following U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, the catered meals provide ample portion sizes that meet or exceed federal standards. Additionally, CCSA provides training on nutrition and activities, with Technical Assistance Specialists spending time in child care centers helping providers incorporate proper nutrition and physical activities into their daily routines. 

“Teaching children how to make healthy choices, introducing them to healthy foods, and providing them with opportunities to be active is just as important to a child’s development as teaching them to read and introducing them to new words,” Griggs explained. “These lessons will follow them through their lives and play an important role in their future success in school and life.”

As part of the Partnership’s Docs for Tots N.C. Initiative and Duke’s Healthy Lifestyles for Children Program, pediatric residents connect with Durham County preschoolers during 30-minute lessons twice monthly to teach nutrition and wellness instruction tailored for 4-year-olds. The children are able to participate in physical activity and learn about healthy eating from medical professionals.

A number of high-quality centers in Durham are making massive investments on their playgrounds through implementation of outdoor learning environments. By developing more natural environments within the playground setting, such as incorporating natural landscapes, gardens and bike trails, child care centers are better able to combine learning with physical activity in the natural setting. Durham Early Head Start sites are great examples of this success. 

Centers that include gardens in their outdoor environments are able to provide hands-on, project-based instruction to children about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables and the physical opportunity to care and maintain a garden. As new foods are introduced to children, the teacher is able to make connections: “This squash is just like what we are growing in our garden.” Or better yet, “This is the squash we grew and picked. Who wants to taste it?”

“I think that the centers that do this well also make an effort to involve families,” Griggs explained. “If families can reinforce the same lessons at home about the importance of trying new foods and being active it helps to provide a consistent message for the children.”

Children witness teachable moments everywhere they go – their home, their school, their church, even the grocery store. When the message of health and wellness is modeled and reinforced to children from an entire community that places emphasis on the issue of wellbeing, all of our young children benefit.

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Just how important is it to teach lessons on living a healthy lifestyle early on? What do you do to help your children learn these lessons? Let us know your opinion!

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