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Preschool Children Spark Change in Parents, Teachers

What do you get when you cross a carrot, some broccoli and a preschooler?

The answer? A birthday cake.

No joke!

This unbelievable phenomenon happened recently in a coastal community of North Carolina. On her recent fifth birthday, Emily*, a Dare County preschooler, insisted that her birthday cake be topped with vegetables – and a few sprinkles for good measure. Her grandmother obliged and Emily loved the outcome –her vegetable-adorned birthday cake.

So what would make a 5-year-old child want to top a birthday cake with vegetables?

It all began at preschool. Emily’s school, the First Assembly Preschool, was participating in a public health program, the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care (NAP SACC) as part of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Demonstration Project. The NAP SACC program helps child care directors and their staff assess the school’s environment -- everything from the type of milk and snacks the school serves, to how the school integrates physical activity into the school day.

The first step was for Emily’s teachers to participate in training for educators to learn about proper nutrition and physical activity guidelines and activities. After the teachers were on board, it was time for the parents to learn about their part in improving the health of their children.

Since the school began participating in the program, there have been tremendous changes in the teachers, the parents and the children.

In the beginning many parents were packing lunches for their children that were filled with “junk” food and included serving sizes that were way too big. Armed with knowledge from NAP SACC, the teachers worked with the parents on how to pack healthier lunches and taught them about the benefits their children would receive from eating healthier foods all day long.

The changes the children were seeing in their lunches sparked the kids’ natural curiosity. They were not only interested in seeing what the other kids were bringing in their lunches, but also what the teachers were eating. Lunch became a time to share and introduce the kids to new foods such as tangerines, avocado and pomegranate.

The school itself also made changes. Children didn’t seem to notice when their whole milk was replaced with low-fat. School parties now included fruit, vegetables and dip, 100 percent juice, water, chips and salsa, and only a little bit of cake. The goal was to teach the kids that celebrations that include healthy food options are fun, too.

A new emphasis on physical activity emerged at the school.

“We used to just let them run and play,” reported Sharal Huit, the school’s director. “Now we do more structured group activities and games and the teachers participate right alongside the kids. The teachers report that the children love it. Even on rainy days when the kids can’t go outside, they get to play a game called Chicken Fat. They think this is as much fun as going outside to play any day.”

To ensure that these changes remain in place, the school has set policies around nutrition and physical activity. Water must be available in all classes, only 100 percent juice and low-fat milk are served, and the kids have structured activity time every day, no matter what the weather.

The kids are passing on to their families the new healthy behaviors they learned at school. Healthy reminders are also showing up in other places throughout the community. As part of the larger Childhood Obesity Prevention Demonstration Project, the YMCA, the health department and several other local organizations are on board to help spread the word about physical activity and nutrition throughout the community. These messages are helping to reinforce the lessons Emily learns at her school every day.

The changes implemented have been successful because the NAP SACC program has been widely accepted by those involved. The kids’ excitement has inspired their teachers and parents to take the program even further.

“We want this to be what our center is known for,” said Ms. Huit.

If Emily’s healthy behavior choices are any indication, the children at the First Assembly Preschool will have a lifetime of very happy birthdays ahead of them.

* The name has been changed

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