On a recent trip to a small village near Umbria in Italy, I observed a group of pre-school aged children walk down the cobble stoned street and into the local Frutta e Verdura (fruit and vegetable shop). They had come from the Scuola Dell Infanzia (pre-school), and along with their teachers, they made a noisy procession. One of the children was carrying a basket and another a book tucked under her arm. The children walking around the store, picking up and smelling the produce, and chatting to the owner. After some time had passed the book was placed on the counter and children, educators and the Negoziante (shop keeper) consulted it. After animated discussion and a flurry of activity the counter was laden with vegetables, which were then loaded into the basket and the children made their way back down the hill.
When I went to the store later that day, I asked the Negoziante what the children were doing. She explained that each week the teachers introduced the children to a new cookbook or recipe. They would then all walk to the store, buy the produce and return to their Scuola Dell Infanzia to prepare it. She told me that on the occasion of my observation they were planning to prepare Yotam Ottolenghi’s, Chickpea, Tomato and Bread soup and as the book was in English it took a while to collectively work out what ingredients and quantities were required.
When I commented on the value of such activities, the potential messages about the healthy food choices they offer to children and the committed teachers it takes to organise such regular outings the Negoziante was puzzled. “Why” she asked, “is this activity noteworthy, the preparing and sharing of pranza (lunch) with friends and families? This practice is a common occurrence throughout Italy every day”.
I explained that it was the introduction of cookbooks as a genre of text, enquiring as to the provenance of food, then preparing and sharing it with educators that was of interest to me. She considered this and offered me the following explanation. “This is not such a special activity that requires very much. Children are the responsibility of the community. When we eat well, they eat well. That is how you teach them”.
Is the establishment of a child’s sense of wellbeing a collective responsibility?
When the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) was first published, I was enthusiastic about Learning Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing. The emphasis on social, emotional and physical wellbeing was a crucial outcome and emphasised that good social, emotional and physical health was an important component in a holistic learning framework.
I was particularly excited by the idea that “Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing”. This was how we as sector could exert some influence over early childhood wellbeing within our care and education services.
The EYLF provides a lot of examples of how programs can evidence and educators can promote this outcome in programs and practice. This all seems straightforward, however it is the following line that has caused me to think about how this plays out in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECEC) sector.
“Educators promote this learning, when they: model and reinforce health, nutrition and personal hygiene practices with children. (EYLF, 2009, p 32)
This issue is an important one. We cannot have a workforce to whom we entrust the care and education of young children who are not a model of wellbeing. Early childhood educators are influential in the lives of young children and the messages we send either overtly or covertly may have far reaching and lasting implications. Consider that childhood obesity is now a very real statistic in Australia:
“Results from the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey show that one quarter (25%) of children aged 2–17 are overweight or obese, with 18% being overweight and 7% obese”. (http://www.aihw.gov.au)
A young student teacher recently told me that she had just finished her placement in a long day care service that was located across the street from a major global fast food chain. She said that it was common practice for staff to buy lunch from this shop and bring it back to eat in the staff room.
While we could say that it is entirely up to an individual to decide what to eat for lunch at work, few other professions have embedded in professional practice frameworks a requirement to model and reinforce health and nutrition practices in their workplace?
Early childhood educators need to have a strong commitment to being positive role models and demonstrate sound eating habits and food choices to the children in their care.
We know that children learn by imitating, watching and following the modeling of others. Our pedagogical practices are underpinned by this theoretical knowledge. In her book “Heart Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature”, Nancy Rosenow asks:
“How can children trust us about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise if we don’t choose to practice what we preach?” (Rosenow 2012).
It does matter what we eat and how we look. That we care about our own wellbeing and we attend to this through the food we eat, the way we eat it and the exercise we do to keep our bodies and brains strong sets the example.
When considering some subtle but powerful everyday changes we can make, I have looked to Little Golden Books, which although published in 1942, provides sound advice.
- Get some exercise every day.
- Learn to cook.
- Have you had a checkup lately?
- Break bread together every day.
- Don’t forget your antioxidants!
- Get plenty of sleep too. (Muldrow, 2013)
When thinking back to the young citizens and their educators in that village, I cannot help but wonder whether we should be focusing less on the provision of staff polo shirts with service logos and fancy program planning software that does our thinking for us, and place more attention to a bowl of apples in the staffroom and a strong commitment to the physical and mental wellbeing of early childhood educators to ensure that Australian children are presented with role models that will set the foundation for a healthy life.
Australia’s Health, (2012). The thirteenth biennial health report of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Retrieved from http://www.aihw.gov.au.
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, ACT
Muldrow, (2013). Everything I need to know I learned from a little Golden Book. Random House, New York.
Rosenow, N. (2012). Heart Centred Teaching Inspired by Nature: Using Nature’s Wisdom to bring More Joy and Effectiveness to Our Work with Children. Dimensions Educational Research Foundation US.