Enabling Environments

Why you need to teach healthy habits to early years children

  • Why you need to teach healthy habits to early years children

Learning the skills of personal hygiene, to eat nutritious food, and to enjoy exercise are vital steps towards independence, says Barbara Isaacs…

One of the principles of Montessori education is to nurture young children’s independence.

The reason we believe independence is such a crucial part of holistic development is because it gives children a strong foundation in positive self-image (it makes them feel capable) and perseverance.

These two elements contribute significantly to their resilience and courage to try new things and take a risk, and their later mental health.

Personal health and hygiene feature at the start of children’s journey towards independence, leading initially to physical then later emotional and cognitive autonomy.

This passage begins at the moment of birth when parents, and later practitioners, facilitate feeding on demand and support baby-led weaning.

This approach is encouraged because it gives babies control of what and how much they eat from the selection in front of them, whilst the adults ensure that the choices on offer are nutritionally balanced and healthy as well as varied.

It also gives us an opportunity to talk about the food (what it is and why it’s good for us) whilst the child is developing motor skills and eye-hand coordination.

This is a very good example of the interconnectedness of learning and development in the early years and demonstrates the importance of the three prime areas of learning as identified in the EYFS.

The relationship between personal, physical and language development, whilst conducting daily tasks, also highlights the importance of the care as integral component of early childhood education.

New skills

As children mature, their initial interest in dressing, washing, teeth cleaning, hair brushing and nose blowing slowly develops into important daily routines that become second nature to them.

Independent use of the toilet is the next vital step in children developing personal hygiene and control over their bodies.

This is a process where families and settings must work together to ensure consistency and a sensitive approach – particularly as the use of disposable nappies seems to have delayed the time when children show spontaneous need to control this bodily function.

When speaking of a healthy life we should also consider children’s daily access to fresh air and exercise. Moving freely and with purpose inside and outside contributes significantly to children’s sense of wellbeing and general health, and capacity and capability to engage in activities.

It’s not surprising that Scandinavian countries legislate for regular daily time spent outside and it’s disappointing that such legislation isn’t in place in the UK, despite the interest in forest school and investment made in outdoor spaces by many settings.

By the time two-year-olds come to access café-style snacks or help to set up for their lunch, they should be aware of the foods they enjoy and also those that are healthy.

They should participate in their preparation – such as cutting up fruits, pouring their own drink and helping to prepare vegetables for a soup or grating cheese for baked potatoes. During these activities, practitioners have further opportunities to engage in conversations about food.

Once again skills in all three prime areas of learning will be developing, as will children’s understanding of the world, preparing a foundation for more academic learning.

Adult support

To nurture children’s independence and their health and wellbeing requires commitment on the part of settings and practitioners and families.

To help young children progress from the initial natural drive to do things for themselves to competence in these life skills they need both time to practise and our encouragement.

They also need space – a little bench on which to sit to put on shoes, a low sink or a suitable step to be able to wash hands, a mirror and personal brush when brushing hair and teeth, and an endless supply of tissues for nose blowing.

A budget to provide these facilities is necessary along with enormous amounts of patience from the adults, as learning these skills happens gradually and they should be modelled and reiterated many times.

MCI offers distance learning Level 3 & 4 Diplomas in Montessori pedagogy – Birth to Seven (Early Years Educator). Visit montessori.org.uk/mci_training.

Barbara Isaacs is a global Montessori ambassador.