"Miss Kelly, my mommy says sodas aren't good for you." Caroline looked directly and questioningly at her teacher.

Miss Kelly looked at what was in her hand-indeed, a soda can. 'Your mommy's right. I think I'll just put this in the recycle bin right now." She walked briskly to the recycle bin, emptying the can in the sink on the way. "Caroline, what else do you know about things that are good to drink and things that are not so good?"

Three more children now gathered around.

"I drink milk," advised Kyle, flexing his arm muscles.

"I have a juice box in my lunch," reported DeAndre.

"My dad gives me water for lunch," said Maya.

"Great information," said Miss Kelly, smiling. "Shall we make a list and do some investigating?" Moving to the flip chart, she wrote headings: What We Drink, Healthy/Not So Healthy, and Reasons Why.

"Shall I put my soda on first? What kind of milk is it, Kyle? DeAndre, do you know what your juice box has in it? Maya, do you drink plain water or is it flavored? Caroline, any more ideas?"

Now the class was launched into an inquiry on healthy drinks.

"Helping children manage stress enhances their physical growth and self-esteem"

During the investigation, children queried teachers and parents, tried to decipher labels, read books, and kept track of what they were doing. The teacher also consulted the Internet. The investigation extended to healthy food, exercise, and living well in general.

However, the teacher quickly realized that the investigation did not need to be confined to her classroom. The whole school could be involved, as well as families, and even the community. Further, as she had instantly acknowledged with Caroline, adults' modeling healthy living was essential.

At the next faculty/staff meeting, die teacher pointed out that the soda vending machine could be changed to a juice and water machine. To her delight, the others agreed-it seemed everyone had been absorbing media accounts of the diabetes epidemic among children. So teachers asked: How can the whole school model a "healthy lifestyle"?

They decided to focus on four areas:

  • deliberate stress reduction
  • abundant exercise
  • good food in school
  • communication with parents to share and extend their plans and activities

Let's take a look at each of these areas and develop some strategies for promoting body/mind fitness for the children in your program. And don't be afraid to use your own creative approach to each fitness category as you address each area each day!

Stress Reduction

A calm mind and learning to manage stress lead to more peaceful, centered, healthful living. Everyone, at every age, experiences stress. It's a natural reaction to everyday challenges. Sometimes it's helpful-a brief episode may help a child complete a task or achieve a goal. But when a child experiences stress for an extended period, it can become problematic and lead to difficulties with peers and interfere with learning. Children who develop good coping skills are better able to respond to and recover from stressful situations. This ability also enhances their physical health, their friendships, and their overall self-confidence. There are many ways to help children relax and relieve the stress they experience as they move through their day:

• Try incorporating yoga, tai dii. or other relaxation strategies into your daily program. Investigate books and tapes on these forms of exercise and relaxation (see Resources) to find age-appropriate techniques. (You won't need to ask 4s and 5s to stretch before exercising or hang their arms and heads downward-their bodies still have so much cartilage that they won't need stretching or drooping.) Since play is central to yoga and tai chi for young children-a wriggling snake can bend and twist and then lie still, holding its breath waiting for a delicious bug-these forms of exercise will be fun for young children. Try this proto-yoga position with 3s to 6s: "Do you feel wiggly? Let's lie on our stomachs like snakes. Can you hold your head up and sniff for a delicious fly? Stick your tongue out and catch it! How do snakes move?" Allow children to wiggle like snakes for a few minutes. "Now the snakes are going to rest." When children are quiet, say: "Now the snakes pretend they are children, sitting up and breathing in and out. In . . . and . . . out . . . in . . . and . . . out."

• Introduce creative visualizations to children to help them relax. You might ask children to imagine they are "seeds" crouched low, and then have them gracefully grow into larger and straighter plants, their blooms unfolding and reaching toward the sun. Remember to play classical music as a backdrop to these visualizations, as well as during rest periods.

• Stimulate children's senses with the scents of vanilla, citrus, and lavender in the classroom. Fragrant liquid soap in the bathroom will encourage more thorough hand-washing, especially when done to the "Sink Song" (see Circle).

Ensure that routines are predictable and conflict resolution strategies are in place. This will reduce stress for you and the children.

Post "relaxation time" scheduled on your classroom wall/bulletin board and in school newsletters. This will inform families of the kinds of relaxation experiences children are enjoying at school, and families might want to continue at home. Hold a workshop for interested parents so they can try some simple yoga and tai chi at home!

"Physical activities not only build motor skills, but confidence as well"

Emphasize Exercise!

Studies have shown that American children become less active with each year of age. Sadly, inactivity among children is linked to future sedentary habits as adults. Physical activities not only build motor skills and confidence, but brain power as well! An active body sends messages to the brain that stimulate synaptic growth.

Try these suggestions to support children's physical fitness and joy in movement:

• When exploring ideas with children in different areas of the classroom, encourage them to demonstrate their ideas with their hands and bodies as well as with their words. You'll be amazed at how much children enjoy this activity!

• Add movement and music to group times. Keep the idea of "active engagement" in mind as you work with children throughout the day.

• Be sure to enjoy the outdoors every day (unless the wind chill factor is below zero). If the outdoor play space is too wet, take the children on a brisk walk.

• Invite a physical education specialist to do a series of teacher workshops. Even very active children need instruction and practice for higher level skills. Also, team up with your colleagues to maximize your gifts and interests-you might focus on boosting the art curriculum while a colleague focuses on physical development.

• Ask children's families to develop a long-term campaign to improve the outdoor play space (even the most updated space can use some new, creative energy). Explore fundraising possibilities and discuss ways of collaborating with organizations within the community.

"Focus on offering foods at snacktime that include whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables"

Practice Healthy Eating Habits

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than one in five children are overweight. Teaching children about making healthy choices is not an easy task, considering that we are competing with powerful media messages aimed at children that don't promote healthful eating.

An effective way to work to meet children's nutritional needs is to focus on offering children foods at lunch- and snacktime that include whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, foods with low sugar content, and foods that are minimally processed and organic whenever possible. Here are some other strategies to try:

• Explore healthful cooking activities with children. You might whip up some fruit smoothies by gathering together a blender, bowls of frozen fruit (such as mango, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana), vanilla yogurt, milk or juice, juice cups, a paring knife, spoons, and a measuring cup. If you use fresh fruit, add ice cubes with liquid to make the smoothie refreshingly cool. Then identify the fruit with children-illustrations on the original bags might help. Offer them bits of unfamiliar fruits to try. Give tastes of yogurt to those who want to try it. Talk about yogurt's calcium for strong bones and teeth, and fruit's vitamins, minerals, and help with digestion. Have children help decide what fruits to put in a blender with yogurt and liquid. (It's okay to put some or all in, or make two batches, perhaps with strawberries for red and blueberries for blue.) You can vary the proportions, but 1 cup of fruit, 2 cups of yogurt, and 1 cup of liquid will work well. Use the blender out of children's reach. Half fill a juice cup for each child for sampling. "What do you taste in this delicious drink? It's called a smoothie-can you figure out why?"

• Create other healthful treats with children, including fruit salads and kabobs, cut-up raw veggies with yogurt dips, salads, and soups (bean, vegetable, potato, corn, and "stone"). You can also grow vegetables indoors (and out if your outdoor area can accommodate a garden) as an outgrowth of your exploration of healthy foods with children in your group.

• Try using crock pots and rice cookers in the classroom to prepare brown rice, wheat berries, barley, and cracked oats. Use milk, maple syrup, jam, or butter as toppings.

• If possible, take field trips with children to farmers' markets where they can use all of their senses to explore the fresh fruits and vegetables in season.

Your efforts to foster fitness, both in body and mind, will be an enduring legacy for the young children in your program.

Communicating with Families

Since supporting children's health and fitness requires a full-time effort, families and teachers must be partners in supporting children's well-being. Diet, exercise, sleep, and emotional serenity are interrelated components of their overall health. Here are some important health tips to share with parents:

• Invite your child to help with food preparation. Children generally like the food they fix, so look for opportunities to include them in the kitchen. Children with clean hands can slice (using a plastic knife) peeled oranges and bananas. They can sprinkle raisins, shredded coconut, and a bit of cinnamon onto their bowls of oatmeal or rice. They can also put shredded cheddar cheese on tortillas before you bake them.

• Expect your child to help you carry groceries, push shopping carts, carry laundry, and do other physical chores. Children develop confidence as well as muscle tone from being helpful around the house.

• Recent research suggests that lack of sleep is linked to obesity because it creates hormonal changes. Make sure your schedules and routines include sufficient sleep for your child.

• Keep the slogan "Move those muscles!" on your refrigerator as a reminder of doing physical games and activities together.

• Firmly limit "screen time" with television, computers, and games.

• Consider hikes or bike rides together as special family activities. Play active group games together.

• Celebrate your child's birthday at school with an especially fun game and healthful snacks rather than cake or cupcakes. ECT

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Physical Activities for Fitness and Stress Reduction (PDF)