Holding a stack of flyers that needed to go into the children's cubbies, Ms. Rhonda looked across her classroom. Suddenly, Michael was in front of her, hands outstretched. "Give them to me," he said. "I'm the fastest runner in the class!"

Aware and proud of his physical abilities, Michael was ready to help, ready to demonstrate his skills, ready to enjoy life. Four- to six-year-olds exult in their own physical development. Playing on the playground without hovering adults, speeding on wheeled toys, towering over the world from climbing equipment, getting big new teeth - all these signs of increasing growth, skill, and independence are deeply pleasing to children.

Teaching children about their bodies, and how to respect and care for them, should be a top priority for early childhood teachers. Take advantage of those "teachable moments" that can occur throughout the day to help children learn more about the functions of, and ways of caring for, parts of their bodies. For example, if a child comes to school with a bandage on his knee, talk with children about the importance of taking good care of cuts and scrapes as a way of keeping our bodies healthy and strong. Encourage children to talk about how it feels to be healthy, versus the feelings that arise when even a minor injury occurs. Discuss the limitations they experience when their bodies are not fully functioning as the result of an illness or injury.

Recent research indicates that motion aids in brain development. Allow and plan for gross-motor activities each day. Adapt the movement curriculum from the book Active for Life, by Stephen Sanders. Activity requires the counterbalance of rest, so read Sleep Is for Everyone, by Paul Showers, aloud to children to help them understand the importance of sleep and rest. The research also indicates that music helps to organize emotions and to develop cognitive skills. So, sing with and for children often.

It's important to create a pleasant, life-affirming atmosphere, where enough rest and exercise are provided. It's also essential that consistent disease prevention, good nutrition, and dental care are an integral part of your daily program. Within this larger context, teach children specifics about their bodies, including information about their bones, muscles, and skin.

Prepare the Environment

In a respectful environment, animals, plants, children, and grown-ups all receive caring attention. Here are some ways you can work to establish this climate in your own classroom:

  • Model meeting the physical needs of every living thing, including the provision of snacks and drinks for children and water for plants.
  • Engage children in the sensitive caregiving of plants and animals.
  • Articulate the rhythm of the day for children: "Now we exercise." "Now we rest." "Now we eat." "We use the bathroom and get drinks of water when we need to."
  • If the rhythm of the day gets thrown off, and children are out of sorts, model breathing activities or guided imagery. You might want to use ideas from Think of Something Quiet, by Clare Cherry.

"Get Up and Go!" Activities

You can build children's motor skills both in and out of the classroom. Here are some activities to try indoors:

  • Arrange carpet squares on the floor that children can use for hopping and jumping on.
  • Provide a basket to toss beanbags or balls into.
  • Set up an obstacle course with boxes and chairs.
  • Stick a long length of masking tape to the floor that children can use for broad jumping.

Try these activities outdoors:

  • Make asphalt "exercise friendly" by painting graphics, such as curving snakes, whose segments invite hopping and counting, or colored circles, in which games of "throw the beanbag to the blue circle" or "run around the red circle" are invented and enjoyed.
  • Provide shovels, rakes, and brooms. The purposeful work of digging, raking, and sweeping is pleasurable and strenuous.
  • Ensure that the climbers and wheeled toys are functional and safe.

Go outdoors often, for fresh air and to give children opportunity for active play.

Investigate the Body

There are many different ways to teach children about their hearts. A good way to begin is by directing children's attention to their hearts at rest, and after running across the playground several times. Children can feel their hearts beating faster when they place their hands on their chests. Jumping and hopping in the classroom can also increase heart rate. Reassure children that the increased heart rate is not dangerous. Explain that the heart gets stronger with exercise because it is a muscle. Then share the book Hear Your Heart, by Paul Showers, with children.

Share Disease-Prevention Strategies

The single most important disease-prevention strategy is hand washing. Not fingertip washing, but whole-hand washing, back and front. Little germs and viruses like all the hiding places on hands - between fingers, under nails, and around cuticles. Model frequent, thorough hand washing. A chart above the sink can remind everyone of the proper way to wash. Use the book Germs Make Me Sick! by Melvin Berger, to help reinforce the importance of hand washing.

Make sure washing supplies are ready for children at all times. These should include:

  • single paper towels
  • liquid soap, somewhat diluted to allow for easy sudsing and rinsing
  • a single faucet that is set for warm water and, if possible, is motion activated (the fixture is not very expensive)
  • a lined, covered waste container for the paper towels
  • nonallergenic hand lotion to keep skin moisturized and less likely to crack and harbor germs

Wash, Scrub, and Learn!

The following suggestions will heighten children's awareness of the importance of washing as a way to prevent the spread of germs:

  • With a small group, rub a little petroleum jelly in the palms of children's hands, and then rub with potting soil. Let each child choose how to get clean: wipe with a towel, dip in water, wash with soap, scrub with soap and brush, or other methods they might invent. Compare results. What did we learn? Children will enjoy experimenting and discussing.
  • Instruct children to use tissues when possible for sneezes and drips, and to use their upper arms, rather than their hands, to catch coughs. Wash hands after using tissues.
  • In the dramatic-play corner, a spring-cleaning will reinforce notions of cleanliness. Buckets of warm soapy water, brushes, and a hose can make scrubbing time for furniture, dishes, plastic food, baby dolls, and doll clothes fun time. Pick a warm day so the great washup can be outside. (Also, discuss evaporation as things dry.)

Emphasize Good Nutrition

Healthy eating habits should also play a consistent role in your program plan. Display the USDA food pyramid in the classroom-preferably the children's version-to emphasize to children and families that, every day, each of us needs five fruits and vegetables, ample grains, and, usually, dairy or enriched soy products for calcium and protein. Classroom snacks and meals should reflect the food pyramid. Sweets should be very limited. Keep in mind that the standard food pyramid can be adapted to reflect children's cultures. Read Bread, Bread, Bread, by Ann Morris, Everybody Cooks Rice, by Norah Dooley, and Beans, by Terry Jennings, to support cultural differences and similarities.

"Eat Right" Activities

Try these food-preparation activities with children to promote healthy eating habits:

Invite children to wash their hands, and then, with careful supervision, help them slice peeled oranges and bananas and stir with shredded coconut to create a bright, healthy snack.

Have children sprinkle raisins, chopped nuts, and a bit of cinnamon onto their bowls of oatmeal or rice.

Ask children to place shredded cheddar cheese onto tortillas before you bake them in a hot oven for a few minutes. The personal touch makes food taste extra good to children.

Try growing sprouts to see how tiny seeds, with proper watering, warmth, and air, make a crunchy, nutritious snack for children.

Buy seeds to sprout, such as alfalfa seeds, at a health-food store. Put two tablespoons of the seeds in a quart mayonnaise jar and cover them with water. Make or buy a draining lid, and, after one night's soak, ask children to help drain and rinse the seeds daily until they have sprouted. In about a week, the sprouts will have grown big enough to eat. Avoid both direct sun and low temperatures. Experiment until you find the right place in the classroom to sprout seeds.

Invite families to contribute to the snacks and meals as a way of expanding everyone's cultural knowledge.

Start a garden. Growing food is an amazing activity for children. Remember that radishes will grow quickly, while growing pumpkins will be slow.

Create a restaurant in the dramatic-play area. Children can make the menus with manila folders and pictures of food. You'll want to include a cash register, notepads for taking orders, and trays for serving.

Focus on Dental Care

Make sure that dental care is a part of your daily programming by helping children brush their teeth after every snack and meal. Their individual toothbrushes should be labeled and either hung from hooks or stuck upright in recycled, sanitized egg cartons. It helps to have everyone brush at the same time. Adults can brush their teeth along with the children, demonstrating proper toothbrushing techniques. Invite a dental hygienist to the classroom to reinforce good brushing habits.

Invite children to check out their smiles in a mirror. Ask: "Are all your teeth alike?" "How are they alike?" "How are they different?" Invite children to eat a piece of apple and then to check their teeth in the mirror. Did "nature's toothbrush" clean up those grinders?

Losing baby teeth is eventful and noteworthy. Make a classroom graph of who is losing teeth. "How many teeth are gone by year's end?" "Do the new teeth look like the old ones?" Share How Many Teeth? by Paul Showers, and Throw your Tooth on the Roof, by Selby B. Beeler, with children.

Introduce Bones and Muscles

Learning about their bones requires children to use their imagination because bones cannot be seen. Begin by gathering a small group of children. Ask them to feel what is inside their arms and legs, and then invite them to feel the middle of another child's back. Encourage children to curve their backs and curl up tight, then to feel the small bones in one another's spines and to compare them with the long bones in their arms and legs.

Learning about muscles is a natural follow-up to a unit on bones. Explain that muscles make our bones move. Do stretches with children, encouraging them to try different ways of moving large and small parts of their bodies. Say, "Move your hand as many ways as you can."

Fun With Muscles and Bones!

Here are some activities you can enjoy with children to help them learn more about the makeup and functioning of their bodies. For many of these activities, be sensitive to those "teachable moments" that provide the perfect opportunity to introduce them.

Examine chicken bones at the science table. Take note of the different sizes and shapes of the bones. Direct children's attention to the connective tissue they will find joining the ribs.

Help children feel their own ribs curving around their chests. Emphasize that bones grow bigger as children grow. Read I'm Growing! by Aliki, to support the concept of growing bones.

Provide a small plastic skeleton to help children visualize what they cannot see. You can also share the skeleton illustrations in the book Bones: Our Skeletal System, by Seymour Simon. Point out that the skull is a bone, too, encasing and protecting the brain. Use the opportunity to talk about bike helmets and seat belts as being extra protection for our skulls.

Start a bone collection with clean bones from home or those found on walks. Deer jawbones are especially interesting looking. A fish skeleton might be left over from dinner. Help children compare their internal structures to those of other animals. Leftover X-rays are occasionally available from medical personnel and make a great, informative display against a window.

Supply pipe cleaners for body making at the art table. Handprints with white tempera paint on black paper look like X-rays. In the block corner, invite children to make skeletons with blocks.

Demonstrate the expansion and contraction of a large rubber band. Explain to children that their muscles stretch and go back again in much the same way.

Share pictures of other internal organs with children, including the heart, stomach, and lungs. Contrast the muscles we move because we want to with these muscles, which are working on their own-even as we sleep.

Study the Skin

Explain to children that our skin is a covering for our bones, muscles, and internal organs. Ask, "What do you think we would be like without skin?" Talk about the fact that differing amounts of melanin make skin different colors. Reinforce the idea that our outsides look more different and colorful than do our insides - how lucky that is for us!

Learn About the Skin You're In!

Try these activities to help children learn more about the function and caring of the skin:

Share the book Your Skin and Mine, by Paul Showers, to help explain skin differences and similarities.

Talk about using sunscreen to protect our skin. Work with families to stress the importance of sunscreen use.

Provide materials that represent different skin colors - paper, crayons, and markers in all the skin tones-at the art table on an ongoing basis. Mirrors should be close by. Encourage portrait drawing throughout the year to sharpen children's observation skills.

Turn the dramatic-play area into a hospital where make-believe broken bones, sore muscles, and cut skin are treated. Props can include a cot, bandages, plastic syringes (without needles), and cast-off shirts for uniforms.

Respect for, and knowledge of, one's body is fundamental to living well. Early childhood experiences set the foundation for this critical understanding.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Young Children's Physical Skills (PDF)