Children take great satisfaction in caring for themselves: picking out clothes to wear, feeding themselves, brushing their own hair and teeth. Even their play with dolls reflects how care, feeding, and learning are vital, absorbing themes — ones that are important to their psychological and social development. Caring for one's body, respecting it, and knowing how it works are fundamental to living — and learning — well, and early childhood experiences set the foundation for building positive, lifelong standards.
Caring for Our Bodies
As you set the rhythm of each day — we get up, we use the bathroom, we eat breakfast, we clean up our dishes, we play quietly, we go outside for fresh air, and we nap — your goal is to provide a pleasant, life-affirming environment that promotes cleanliness, good nutrition, and a balance between exercise and rest each day.
The most powerful messages you can send will come from modeling good habits (make healthy food choices, brush teeth after eating); showing an interest in your child's physical development (display a colorful growth chart in a central area); and supporting your child in her self-care efforts (supply a step stool for the bathroom sink).
As you model the different ways to meet the physical needs of all living things (people, animals, and plants) your child will learn that respect and kindness play a large role in caring for our bodies. Provide opportunities for your child to engage in sensitive caregiving tasks: 2 year olds can water plants, while 5 and 6 year olds may like to feed their pets for practice. (Be aware that daily pet care is still parental duty at this age.)
It's important to directly teach cleanliness to your child: Explain that he should not eat food that has fallen on the floor. Try to restrain the joys of nose-picking with generous supplies of tissues. Show him often the right way to wash his hands. Encourage him to begin taking care of his own toileting needs; this can begin around age 3, but he will need your supervision, especially in wiping.
Invite your child to take an active role in body cleaning at bath time. Bath time is also a great time for your child to explore his body, because everything requires washing.
Specific parts of the body, such as bones, teeth, muscles, and skin, often become fascinating focal points for children within the larger effort of learning to care for one's self. And opportunities often arise in response to an experience. For example, learning about teeth is especially interesting when your child's first tooth is ready to fall out, and a scraped knee is a great opportunity to learn about skin. So be on the lookout for teachable moments.
Moving Our Bodies
We've all heard the disappointing news: Kids today aren't getting enough physical activity. Infact, studies have shown that American children become increasingly less active with each year of age, and inactivity among children is linked to future sedentary habits as adults. Getting exercise is an important part of your child's healthy development. Engaging in physical activities builds motor skills and confidence, and even brainpower! An active body sends messages to the brain that stimulate synaptic growth.
Current recommendations call for variety: lots of vegetables and fruits, some high-quality protein, and whole grains. Calcium (whether it comes from milk or another source) is absolutely essential for growing bones and teeth. The following activities will help get your child interested in food and healthy-eating habits:
- Invite your child to prepare food. After a good handwashing, your child can slice (with a plastic knife) peeled oranges and bananas. He can sprinkle raisins, shredded coconut, and a bit of cinnamon onto his bowl of oatmeal or rice. He can put shredded cheddar cheese on tortillas before you bake them in the oven.
- Plant vegetables. Try growing sprouts to see how tiny seeds, with proper watering, warmth, and air, make a crunchy, nutritious snack. Put two tablespoons of alfalfa or other seeds into a quart-sized mayonnaise jar, cover them with water, and after one night's soak, drain and rinse daily until seeds have sprouted. They will be big enough to eat in about a week. Avoid both direct sun and low temperatures.
- Play restaurant at dinner. Invite your child to create a menu (she will need your guidance). Give her a notepad for taking orders and a tray for serving. A toy cash register is a good prop as well.
- Read about different kinds of food — then experiment. Read Bread, Bread, Bread, by Ann Morris, and Everybody Cooks Rice and Beans, by Nora Dooley, to present cultural differences and similarities in food preferences. If possible, visit ethnic restaurants.
Investigating the Body
By being open to your child's questions and encouraging his own investigations, you will be helping him to feel comfortable with his physical body and teaching him how it all works together.
- Listen to our hearts beat. A good way to introduce the concept of a heartbeat is to direct your child's attention to her heart at rest and then after running across the playground several times.
- Introduce bones. Learning about bones requires imagination, because your child can't see his bones. Ask him to feel what's inside his arms and legs. Curve your back and curl up tight. Have him feel the small bones in your spine and compare them with the long bones in your arms and legs.
- Smile. Look into a mirror with your child and study your smiles. Ask her to share what she knows about teeth. If an older sibling is losing teeth, use the opportunity to explain that our teeth fall out so that the new, bigger ones for our grown-up bodies have room to come in. Keep toothbrushes in every bathroom.
- Explore muscles. Explain to your child that we make our bones move with muscles. Showing the expansion and contraction of a large rubber band, explain that muscles stretch and go back again in much the same way. Do a series of stretches that encourages him to try different ways of moving large and small parts of his body. Play Simon says, and invite him to "move your hand as many ways as you can."
- Study the skin you're in. Ask your child, "What would we be like without skin?" Explain that skin is a covering for our bones, muscles, and internal organs. This is a great way to introduce new vocabulary; talk about the fact that differing amounts of melanin make skin have different colors and that our outsides are more colorful and different than our insides — how lucky for us.
- Breathe in. Breathe out. The most basic of bodily functions, breathing is a difficult process to explain. Children can feel it happening, so, with your child, suck in a big breath and hold it. Hold your nose to emphasize the point. When the breath comes whooshing out, how does it feel? Where was that air? Invite your child to cup his hand over his nose and to breathe in and out, feeling the air pass over his hand.
- Make sense of our senses. Identify the five major sense organs with your child — ears, eyes, nose, mouth, skin — and what each one does. Pretend with her that a sense is not working. For example, cover her ears and whisper something. What is that like?
Smell different foods and cosmetics to become aware of sensory discrimination, which our senses develop to help us gain information. Remind your child that we must protect our senses especially well: We don't stick things in our ears or up our noses or poke at people's eyes.