Early years is an important time to develop exercise patterns that set the course for life. Developing regular physical activity patterns when children are young provides immediate and long-term benefits for both physical and psychological well-being.
Childhood obesity is regarded as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century (World Health Organisation) so it needs to be a focus for parents and families as well as childcare providers.
With childhood obesity on the rise, concern over nutrition and exercise in the early years has never been greater. The latest data source (NCMP 2017-18) reveals that
- More than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school
- Excess weight and obesity rates are among the highest in the South West and concentrated in the most deprived areas
The main causes of rising levels in childhood obesity are:
- an increased consumption of energy in the form of foods which are high in fat and sugar but are low in vitamins, minerals and other healthy nutrients
- a trend towards decreased levels of physical activity.
Just like adults, children become overweight when they consume more calories than they use. A nutritious, balanced diet needs to be combined with sufficient physical activity in order for children to have a healthy start in life. Physical activity in the early years should always be fun. Parents and carers should try to be role models for active lifestyles and engage with young children in active play whenever possible. When families are active together, they get to spend more time together and build stronger emotional bonds as well as experiencing health benefits.
The Chief Medical Officers’ recommendations around physical exercise for children under five years are:
- Physical activity should be encouraged from birth, particularly through floor-based play and water-based activities in safe environments.
- Children of pre-school age who are capable of walking unaided should be physically active daily for at least 180 minutes (3 hours), spread throughout the day.
- All under fives should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (being restrained or sitting) for extended periods (except time spent sleeping).
The role of early years providers
Childcare providers have a large part to play in enabling young children to fulfil the activity guidelines and they can support parents in developing healthy behaviours in their children from a young age.
The EYFS requirements state that providers must offer opportunities for young children to be active and interactive and to develop their co-ordination, control, and movement. Children must also be helped to understand the importance of physical activity and to make healthy choices in relation to food.
Developing this area of learning enables children to:
- learn by being active and experiencing physical activity through all areas of learning and development
- gain confidence, feeling the positive benefits of being healthy and active
- develop a positive sense of well-being through physical development
- develop a healthy lifestyle and habits which they will be able to continue throughout life.
Early years providers need to consider:
- indoor physical activity provision across the age groups
- access to outdoor play opportunities
- physical activity ideas for small spaces
- accessing facilities in the community such as the local park or swimming pool
- using external agencies to deliver activity sessions such as sport or dance
- encouraging active travel to the setting for both children and staff
- encouraging children and their families to be physically active away from the setting and signposting them to activities in the local community
- specific staff training on physical activity in the early years.
It is important to note that the EYFS remains the only guidance with a statutory requirement for children to go outside on a daily basis, early years practitioners must pay regard to this.
More than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school, we therefore need to focus on early years to improve this outcome for children.