The Government's ambition is to halve childhood obesity by 2030 but in a recent report Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned that we are nowhere near achieving this.
Her report claims: ‘Many children who are obese or overweight suffer physical health issues, including type 2 diabetes, asthma and musculoskeletal pain, and experience mental health problems, such as depression.’
We know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately affected. Current projections indicate that if nothing changes, as many as one in three growing up in deprived areas will be obese by 2030.
Early years professionals can make a difference. They have an important, influential role in helping young children develop a healthy attitude to food and in supporting parents in understanding children's needs with regard to healthy eating.
Agents for change
Children's health and well-being is at the heart of the EYFS and is driven by its principles. Research indicates that effective early years provision supports children to become secure and confident learners and future citizens. For example, the revised Early Learning Goals (ELGs) for physical development, moving and handling, state that children must ‘know the importance for good health of physical exercise and a healthy diet, and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe’. (DfE 2019)
‘POW’ activities are designed to build chidlren's stamina at Kids Planet
‘We made it a rule that the team would create a space with suitable props and see it in action, observing children's use of it. If after a few days it wasn't working, they would try something else.’
In the last 12 months Best Practice Network, in partnership with Kids Planet Day Nurseries, has developed a training course that prepares practitioners to take on the specialist role of physical activity and nutrition co-ordinator (PANCo). The aim is for every single Kids Planet nursery to have a PANCo. It is an intense programme that involves face-to face and online training from a dedicated PANCo tutor. Practitioners are supported to develop their practice and produce evidence in a portfolio that demonstrates the impact they have had on improving outcomes for children in their setting.
The PANCo role was born out of an innovative health improvement programme for the early years sector known as The Cambridge Model. The model helps practitioners lead continuous improvements around physical activity and nutrition within their setting, supporting the prevention of obesity. A PANCo acts as an agent for change, championing health and well-being in the setting.
Early years practitioners are often in a privileged position of having close relationships with parents and can provide them with advice and support.
At Kids Planet's setting in Wavertree, Liverpool, the PANCo set up a display board providing information about their role and this prompted a lot of interest from both staff and parents. Chelsea, the PANCo, has discussed with parents how to encourage healthy eating habits at home, sharing the setting's weekly menus and recipes and encouraging parents who struggle to ensure their children eat fruit and veg at home. Many parents are using the recipes.
Supporting the whole child
Raising awareness of the role has led to interesting discussions about the importance of diet and exercise and after discovering that many staff arrived without eating breakfast the PANCo set up a welcoming breakfast area in the staff room which has been warmly received. Staff have commented that they are now eating much more fruit.
In some Kids Planet settings children are growing their own fruit and vegetables. This has helped them learn about nutrition and how the things they eat are grown. Several other settings have created breakfast boxes for parents and carers and staff.
But the role of the PANCo involves much more than supporting healthy eating. It has is a vital part to play in supporting the healthy development of the ‘whole child’. The support for mental health and well-being in early years settings is essential not just for children but for the workforce as well. Evidence shows that mindfulness can decrease stress, anxiety and feelings of depression.
Children's well-being is the result of healthy development within a nurturing, enabling environment where partnerships between home, health and education are effective. It is understood that using mindfulness practices frequently, can achieve lower levels of stress and higher well-being scores. But mindfulness isn't just about helping children manage their mental health. It is also about supporting children to recognise their emotions and learn how to regulate them.
We know that young children are very focused on the here and now. They often react quickly to situations of stress or conflict in their setting. Teaching them how to be more in control of it is a key life skill. Research tells us that this has a beneficial effect on:
- Education and learning, with improvements in cognitive performance, better focus and concentration, engagement and less anxiety in testing
- Mental health and behaviour, with decreased stress levels and over excitement, improved impulse control, increased emotional well-being and self-compassion and lower self-harm
- Social behaviour, with healthier responses to difficult social situations, a reduction in implicit bias and more compassionate responses to others
Kids Planet practises mindfulness with its staff and children, taking time to plan for ‘mindful moments’. The approach is to create a mindful pedagogy that inspires, educates, and empowers practitioners to increase the amount and quality of physical and emotional experiences they offer children.
They do this by providing an innovative and engaging variety of active play and mindfulness activities that can easily become part of any daily routine.
A team of ‘mindful messengers’ lead and advise practice – to implement fun, motivating activities with children that will benefit them in many positive ways.
Kids Planet's PANCos are encouraging staff to build different physical activities into their daily routines. These include POW (Pulse, Out of Breath, Warmth) activities such as jumping and marching. The aim is to get the children to notice changes they feel in their bodies as a result of POW activities and support them to understand the importance of getting their pulses racing and their bodies warm before heading off to play, especially in the colder months.
In Kids Planet's Great Sankey setting the children now help to order and put away the weekly shopping order. They also help to prepare food for snack times, make local shopping trips for produce and send home a recipe of the month from the setting's no sugar and low sugar menu.
Great Sankey's PANCos work closely with the SENCO and mindful messengers to ensure that it is always extending knowledge and practice.
Evidence tells us that the early years shape children's future development, and that this influences how well they do at school, their ongoing health and well-being and their achievements later in life.
Having a PANCo in every setting can help to create a quality early years workforce that connects with families and communities. And that will, in turn, make a real difference to outcomes for children.
Department of Health and Social Care (2019) Time to Solve Childhood Obesity, An independent report by the Chief Medical Officer. Available at assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/837907/cmo-special-report-childhood-obesity-october-2019.pdf
What is a PANCo? Discover the advantages of having one in your setting: panco.org.uk/employers
Everyone needs a PANCo by Linda Baston-Pitt – Nursery World: bit.ly/369XQUU
CEDAR: The Centre for Diet and Activity Reseach – cedar.iph.cam.ac.uk/research/directory/eypan/
Gill Mason scooped Trainer of the Year 2019 in the Nursery World Awards Read more: bit.ly/2DUhxE4
Best Practice Network: Provides accredited qualifications for education professionals worldwide, with a mission to help every child access an excellent education. bestpracticenet.co.uk