By Hilary Gee
KAC Government Relations Specialist
Kids learn habits while they’re small that persist through adulthood – when kids are big! Child care providers are key leaders in helping Kansas kids build lifelong healthy habits. By making a few key changes related to food, drinks and activity, providers can have a big impact on the health of Kansas kids.
Adults and kids of all sizes can benefit from good nutrition and activity habits, but changes are needed because a growing number of Kansans of all ages are overweight or obese. These serious health problems start early – 20% of children ages 2-5 in the U.S. are already overweight or obese, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer health, social and educational challenges than their healthy-weight peers. Additionally, people who are overweight or obese as children are more likely to be obese as adults. Early environments – like child care and early education programs – play a crucial role in shaping behaviors and habits for life.
The Think Big! Start Small Pledge Program
The Think Big! Start Small provider pledge is a voluntary program led by Child Care Aware® of Kansas and Kansas Action for Children to connect child care providers with information and resources to promote healthy habits for kids related to food, drink, active play and screen time.
By completing a simple online pledge, child care providers are committing to help make Kansas kids healthier through a few simple changes in their programs. Already, hundreds of providers from child care centers and homes across Kansas have taken the pledge! Join us in building healthier communities so that all Kansas kids can grow up healthy – take the pledge here.
Small Changes, Big Impact.
To help maximize the impact of a few changes, we’ve identified four top priorities based on research and collaboration with Kansas experts: Better Beverages, Unplug Under 2, Breastfeeding Benefits and Right Rewards. These are simple changes that are designed to work in all child care programs – from small family day care homes to big child care centers.
While food choices get a lot of attention, it’s important to remember that beverages also play a big role in children’s nutrition and health. Children and adults get a lot of calories from sugary beverages like soda pop, juice drinks, and sports drinks, but water is the best beverage for keeping kids older than age 1 hydrated. Calories from sugary drinks don’t satisfy hunger like calories from food. And while some sweet drinks (like diet soda) don’t have calories, they make you crave sweet foods and ultimately consume more calories. Children should be encouraged to drink water or low-fat milk instead of sugary drinks.
Having too many sugar-sweetened drinks contributes to a variety of health problems for kids – from dental cavities to heart disease and high blood pressure. If you currently drink or serve sweet drinks a lot, start by replacing one or two sweet drinks each day with a better beverage, or skipping all sweet drinks just one day a week (learn more in “Pass on Pop”). Low-fat milk and water are great for kids. To make water more fun, add some fruit, fresh or frozen, for flavor.
Unplug Under 2
Kids and adults spend a lot of time looking at electronic screens, like smart phones, tablets and TVs, but for young children, screen time should be limited or avoided. While parents and other caregivers may allow lots of screen time at home, you have the opportunity to support healthier habits while kids are in your care.
As a general rule, children under age 2 should have no screen time. For these young children, screen time can interfere with healthy brain development – a child’s brain develops best when interacting with people like parents, caregivers and other kids, not screens. The stimulation from electronics can also interfere with restful sleep. Babies and toddlers sleep a lot, so when they are awake, it’s important to maximize the time they spend interacting and exploring the real world.
Older children should have no more than two hours of screen time each day. For children of all ages, time spent looking at screens is generally sedentary and occupies time when they could be engaged in active play. Excessive screen-time can lead to serious issues, including attention problems, trouble in school, sleep disorders, and obesity. When older kids are allowed screen time, make sure it’s a high-quality and interactive experience – ask questions and discuss what is happening on the screen. This helps kids make connections with real world activities.
Breast milk is the ideal food for infants. Child care providers have a valuable opportunity to support and promote breastfeeding. Parents of breastfed children need information and support to continue breastfeeding when children are in a child care program. In addition to supporting parents, it’s also important to support fellow providers who choose to continue breastfeeding while working.
Breastfeeding has benefits for child care providers as well as children and their families. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for first six months of life for optimal nutrition. Breastmilk lower infants’ risk for infections, colds, asthma, allergies, SIDS, chronic health problems, as well as diabetes and obesity. In addition to keeping babies healthy, breastfed babies are happier! Breastmilk is easier to digest than formula, and this makes babies less fussy.
Continuing breastfeeding when babies are in child care is a big commitment for mothers – it takes time and patience to both express adequate milk to send to child care and to continue nursing when with their children. Providers play an important role in helping mothers succeed who choose to breastfeed succeed. Work with breastfeeding mothers to establish a feeding schedule that supports their feeding/expressing routine at home.
To help kids learn to enjoy healthy food and physical activity, we need to rethink some customs around rewards and incentives. Food and physical activity should not be used as a punishment or as a reward.
If you reward good behavior with unhealthy food (like ice cream or candy), kids develop a stronger preference for sweets. It also contradicts nutrition values they are learning at home and in child care. Rewarding kids with unhealthy food is like saying “You need healthy food to grow up strong and feel good, but if you’re good, you will be rewarded with unhealthy food.” Confusing, right? Food rewards also give kids calories they may not need, or replace healthier food in their day. By providing food only when kids are hungry – and not as a treat – children learn to respond to their bodies’ hunger cues. Instead, reward good behavior with praise, a fun activity or other classroom privilege (like leading an activity or picking a game for the group). Similarly, using physical activity – like running laps – as a punishment for bad behavior reinforces negative associations with exercise.
Regular activity helps children regulate their actions and behavior, so punishing bad behavior by limiting activity (like making a child sit in time-out while other kids get to run around) can be counter-productive. Activity should not be treated like a privilege. Instead, correct problematic behavior by restricting screen time or taking away a toy.
Now that you know how small changes in your child care program can have a big impact on the lives of young kids, take the pledge at www.kac.org/think-big-start-small. After you pledge, you’ll be connected with information and resources to promote healthy habits for kids related to food, drink, active play and screen time. You can also connect with other Think Big! Start Small pledge providers on Pinterest to share your ideas and learn from others across the state. Changes you make when kids are small can have big benefits!
Learn more about Think Big! Start Small.
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