Building Happy, Healthy, Hope-full Lives.
By Sarah Presswood Owner and Manager at George Perkins Day Nursery
That is our strapline at nursery, and I suppose it might seem like stating the obvious to say that these are the fundamental principles on which we build our care and teaching. However, I believe that all too often the basics are brushed aside for the ‘more important’ aspects of early childhood development like literacy and numeracy. There are three strands to the initiative; healthy attitudes to food, being physically active and emotional wellbeing.
This week the topic of food insecurity for children has hit the headlines as the row over providing free school meals during the half-term holiday rages on. I could not agree more with the basic sentiment of children needing to be fed before they can concentrate and learn higher order things. This is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of the theories at the foundation of practice for all early childhood practitioners. What I am less sure about is whether the fact that McDonalds is offering a million free meals to children is something to celebrate. There are many reasons why families turn to take-aways and convenience foods; they are often cheap, but they are not the healthy option and a reliance on these types of meals can lead to other issues like longer term health inequalities.
The health data for our locality was the starting point for our Building Healthy Families campaign. The levels of childhood obesity, poor oral health and type 2 diabetes were quite frankly scary, and we felt a responsibility to do our bit to improve the life chances of the children and families using our nursery. How can you care for a child if you don’t help them to care for themselves?
At nursery we believe that healthy attitudes to food start with our youngest children and babies; it is important to create habits and understanding that will last a lifetime. We also know that children can influence what happens in a family, our research into the success of our initiative has proved this to us. Parents have said;
“Their focus on healthy eating and oral health has helped us continue this at home by instilling good habits and routine. “
“She comes home chatting to me about healthy eating. Through the things she has learnt at nursery, she has actually made me reduce the amount of chocolate I eat.”
Being a healthy setting is now part of who we are as a nursery; the ethos is a golden thread that runs through all aspects of nursery life and it has been important that it is embraced by everyone from management, staff and parents to be effective. Involving parents from the start has been key and we do this in a number of ways, we had a launch for the campaign and invited parents in to tell us what was important to them, and we followed this up with regular stay and plays which have a focus around being healthy. What was important to us at nursery was to make being healthy part of every aspect of the day and not just have a few activities that were dipped into.
We revamped our routine and had specific times when we would do whole group high intensity physical activity sessions; we explained to the children that they had to move so much that they would ‘huff and puff’ and their ‘hearts would go boom’. These sessions were for 15 minutes twice a day and the staff join in just as much as the children. It has been tough for some to sustain the activity, but before long the children build the stamina and will call out “my heart is going boom now”. Explaining to the children that is important to do exercise and give them information about their hearts needing to be healthy and how strong muscles will help them be able to do all the things they want to how really helped with engagement. With the younger children they just see these sessions as part of their day and as long as it’s fun, they are happy to join in.
A couple of years ago we introduced the Daily Mile. There was a period of trial and error trying to make it fit in to start with, but when we realised we were overthinking it and keeping it simple was the answer it has become a natural part of the day. We are lucky that we have a good-sized outdoor area and so the children just run laps around there, but we have also been to the local park and done it there too. Some days it works better than others, but that’s OK; it’s the message that it’s part of our day and we all had a go is what is important. We involve parents through termly ‘Toddles’ where we meet with families at nursery and walk to the local park on a Sunday afternoon and encourage families to be active together; we might do a scavenger hunt or take the parachute or footballs and play some games and then back to nursery for tea and crumpets. It has been a great way for parents to see that being active as a family can be fun and has also been an opportunity to meet other families.
Our two biggest successes have been our Family Food Challenge and ‘Cooking for my Friends’. The Family Food Challenge proved a great way to include parents in our initiative. We grow quite a lot of fruit and vegetables with the children, and through the spring and summer as we harvested them we would send them home with the children, challenging the families to cook a meal together using the vegetable and to then post a picture to their child’s online learning journey so that it could be shared with everyone. At our Family Fun Day we had prizes for the families that had done the most challenges, posted the funniest photos etc and then we created a recipe book of all the meals that families had cooked to share with the rest of our nursery community.
I describe ‘Cooking for my Friends’ as the EYFS in one activity so it was a winner from the start! Our older children (Rising 3s and pre-school) would work in their Key Groups and sit down with their Key Person and look at recipe books to decide on a healthy recipe to cook for tea for all their friends. They would then write their shopping lists, with each child doing this at whatever level they felt comfortable -the younger children were making marks on their paper and the older ones copied some of the words really well. They then would collect some money from the office and walk to the local supermarket (1.5km round trip), buy their ingredients and walk back to nursery. Once back, they cook the meal ready for their friends to eat at tea time. The learning here is endless, literacy, numeracy, understanding the world, physical development, working together with others -PSED. The children love it and are developing skills for life.
Coronavirus has meant we have had to adapt this activity but where there’s a will there’s a way! We no longer go to the supermarket, but the children now add their ingredients to the nursery’s weekly online Tesco order, so we have added ICT to the activity! We have had to modify how the cooking happens too, to ensure no cross contamination, but the benefits outweigh the challenges.
Having a focus on emotional wellbeing benefitted everyone at nursery. We focus on the wellbeing of staff, children and parents and the supportive atmosphere that pervades nursery is almost palpable as you walk through the door. People talk about nursery ‘feeling so warm and calm’ and that is so important for us. We have done some whole team training on emotion coaching and had parent workshops on this too which has helped everyone approach “behaviour” and wellbeing in the same way. We see all behaviour as a response to a situation and in working with the children to recognise this in themselves through co-regulation we believe that we are supporting them on a journey to self-regulation. We talk about having a ‘toolbox’ of techniques to help us support the children and each other in difficult situations; we are all individuals and therefore respond differently to situations and challenges, and it is therefore important to have different and bespoke strategies to cope with these challenges.
Although we have winning approach now, (we were thrilled to win the Nursery World 2019 Health and Wellbeing Award) we are not resting on our laurels and now more than ever we are striving to help build Healthy, Happy, Hope-full Lives.
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