Early childhood obesity: What can educators do?

Obesity is the health epidemic of our time, and it seems that everyone—from the mayor of New York to the Walt Disney Company—is trying to do something about it. While trying to change the unhealthy habits of adults is often viewed as an infringement on personal freedom, there isn’t much argument against doing so for young children. When Disney decided it would no longer allow junk food advertising during its programming aimed at preschoolers, it was lauded by none other than First Lady Michelle Obama.

But it takes more than advertising to prevent obesity—and healthy habits include not only eating and drinking but also physical activity. Children ages 2‒5, according to guidelines put forth by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in 2002, should be getting a minimum of two hours of exercise a day, including 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. But the reality is that most of children’s time at preschool is not active, due to the school’s lack of space, equipment, time, or staff members with the right training.

Let Me Play is a comprehensive program implemented in Head Start classrooms across the country that offers training to teachers and provides them with developmentally appropriate activities that can be easily incorporated into existing curriculum. An evaluation of the program conducted by McREL found that it improved teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward physical education and health content and increased the levels of activity, skill, and motivation in children.

Preschools that want to incorporate developmentally appropriate physical activity in their curriculum should find ways for teachers to collaborate on ideas for activities and make sure they’re comfortable with implementation. Also, programs can monitor implementation using tools like the Physical Education Rating Scale (available for download from Amazon).

Do you think physical activity should be required in preschool? What else can schools do to encourage healthy habits?

Written by Heather Hein, writer and editor, and Sheila Arens, senior director, at McREL.

13 Comments

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  • Thanks a lot for the article! I really sympathies with all parents who have to face this utter problems of obesity with their kids. And I really think that educators can and should help in such cases.

  • Brooke Brand Ruzycky says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I am a 6th grade Health teacher in Upstate New York. There is such a huge push right now to increase test scores and improve academic proformance that the importance of student health really gets overshadowed. The “Powers that Be” don’t think about all aspects of what improves test scores. there has been research done in some schools where there is a direct corrilation between healthy students and better test scores. Students who are eating better and get regular exercise, are not sick as often. Which means they are not missing as much instruction time being out of school or in a nurse’s office. Students who are getting the right “fuel” nutritionally, combined with regular physical activity, are also more allert and productive during class time as well.
    It always amazes me that the day before a state test teachers encourage their students to get lots of sleep that night and get a good breakfast the morning of the test. Some schools even provide students with a healthy breakfast themselves. Why is there not more of a push to encourage these healthy behaviors EVERYDAY? Test scores ARE important, but so is student health. I’d also like to ask others that like to look at my class as “not so important,” one question. If a student drops out of high school because they are pregnant or addicted to drugs…does it really matter what their 6th grade Math and ELA state tests score where?

  • We noticed early childhood obesity now haunt all over the world, normally kids are found obesity due to unhealthy relationship with food and recipes or eating disorder, but obesity during childhood is now found common through genetic problems.

  • Amy says:

    Do you think physical activity should be required in preschool? What else can schools do to encourage healthy habits?
    Childhood obesity is a huge problem; it starts at ages 2-5 but it usually starts a habit that continues into adulthood. I think a huge problem that we have now with the surge of the digital age is that as our kids are being surrounded with technology, they are less apt to spend time outside playing and running around with friends. They spend more time on video games in using iPads. If kids are developing these habits of inactivity when they are young, they won’t enjoy being active as adults.

  • P.S. says:

    Childhood obesity is certainly an epidemic perpetuated by numerous factors. While Disney should be applauded for their step in banning junk food commercials during the airing of Disney Shows, Disney should also take a look on their very own soil. Employees of Disney Parks, Inc. are all well aware of tactics used by Disney to encourage the purchase and consumption of extremely high calorie/high fat products by tourist families. Disney literally “pumps” the smell of flash fried foods out of the park restaurants so that the smell permeates the surrounding area, creating something of a “Pavlov’s dog” reaction. All in the name of increased sales of over priced goods.
    In regards to preschool aged children, I agree with the importance of encouraging and increasing activity time in this school setting. However, I feel there needs to be an appropriate balance as children of this age need to begin to learn, in small steps, how to focus their bodies and minds on less active tasks.
    As both and educator and a parent, I am well aware of the delicate balance required in all aspects of child rearing. Activity and health related issues are no exception.

  • Cheryl says:

    I worry about the curriculum that is now being pushed in preschool and whether or not it is developmentally appropriate. I love the idea of requiring physical play time in the early development years. Not only do I think that it will help foster good habits but also a desire to continue that behavior as children get older and progress throughout school. What child doesn’t love play time? And learning activities can always be combined with physical activity.
    I would also like to see healthy snacks provided in school. I have been in a number of kindergarten classrooms in which the teacher or parents provide a snack for the class. I just wish that they were healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables or even whole grains.

  • Well, an early childhood obesity really exist in our country due to the main reason that some parents were not able to control the eating activities of their child. The good way we can do to solve this problem is to consult for an obesity educators to teach them how to prevent to much obese.

  • Jeremy Hill says:

    It may also be interesting to see a similar link to smoking. Education surely plays a major roll in improving overall health for a nation.

  • Maria says:

    Reading this makes me realise how important it is to educate ourselves as teachers as well as parents so that our children have opportunities to develop the appropriate mentality which will lead them to the right happits. It is worth it.
    Thanks

  • Janelle says:

    This is a much larger problem than simply no junk food advertisements during Disney cartoons. I think better education in the younger year levels is required and supplying adults with healthier options when it comes to providing food for themselves and their families.

  • Giolanta says:

    Obesity is an indication of the education level. We must learn children how to eat healthy. This is the only way to fight obesity.

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