As early childhood educators, our goal is to provide children with strong foundations that set them up for success. These foundations transcend the academically-focused, Kindergarten-readiness skills and include supporting the physical, mental, social, and emotional health of all children. Particularly during the pandemic, there are numerous opportunities for us to discuss healthy habits and routines with young children at school.
What Health Concepts Should Teachers Reinforce?
While parents and families play a pivotal role in teaching children healthy habits and routines, teachers can reinforce these behaviors at school. In particular, teachers can also help support and reinforce the oral vocabulary related to health.
Hygiene and cleanliness are important habits that children will use every day in a variety of settings, especially in school settings to stop the spread of germs. Specific habits to reinforce include hand washing after the bathroom and before eating, covering their mouths when they sneeze and cough, and using tissues to wipe their noses. Proper dental hygiene, while not always a part of the everyday school routine, is an additional important habit that educators can reinforce.
Eating Healthy Foods
Teachers can both model and encourage healthy eating. Teachers can lead conversations about fruits and vegetables, provide healthy food at snack or meal times, and model eating healthy foods when sharing meals with children. As part of eating healthy foods, teachers can reinforce and model the importance of drinking water and milk, as opposed to sugary drinks.
Daily Sleep and Exercise
Getting sufficient sleep and exercise each day are essential for young children and continue to be important precursors for school success. Teachers can reinforce these habits through creating structured time for both at school.
Mental Health Matters Too!
Early on in children's lives, it's important to reinforce that "good health" means more than just a focus on our physical health -- it means our mental health too. Teachers can support this through creating a welcoming environment, talking about emotions, and teaching strategies for how to manage big feelings.
Fun ways to Teach Healthy Habits
Read-alouds are a great tool to teach concepts in all learning domains. They foster discussions about characters’ behaviors and how that behavior might compare to children's own behavior. They are also a great tool that educators can refer back to when discussing a concept. For example, “Did you take a bath like Pigeon last night?”
Some of our favorite books about health include:
- Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems
- Brush Your Teeth Max and Millie by Felicity Brooks
- I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
- The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food by Stan and Jan Berenstain
- The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
- When Sadness is At Your Door by Eva Eland
Songs and Poems
Songs and poems are great tools to help children remember the steps to a routine. Rhymes and tunes are fun for children to practice as they create healthy habits. Some of our favorite songs include:
- Wash, Wash, Wash Your Hands (to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat): Wash, Wash, Wash Your Hands Don’t forget the soap! Rub and rub and rub and rub. Wash the germs away! Yay!
- Run in Place (to the tune of Frere Jacques): Run in place (x2) Touch the sky (x2) Hop on one foot (x2) Now switch legs (x2)
- Elmo's handwashing song (available here).
Teachers can structure a variety of activities and lessons to reinforce healthy habits. For example, teachers can:
- Encourage children to “shop” for healthy foods in the classroom food area
- Structure practice time for children to practice brushing and flossing “teeth” (use ice cube trays as fake teeth!)
- Allow children to model hygiene routines, like bath time, with dolls
- Invite doctors and dentists into the classroom (or set-up a "virtual visit") to remind children that these professionals are not intimidating
- Provide opportunities for children to role play as a doctor or dentist with dolls and stuffed animals
- Teach simple yoga moves and include opportunities for movement in daily routines