August 1, 2002 – Preschoolers dive headfirst into their world, eager to touch it, climb it and decipher it. We parents follow behind in exhausted awe, weak with the effort of simply keeping our little dynamos fed, clothed, amused and out of danger.
There’s rarely time to consider whether or not we’re steering them toward a successful future. But experts say that what happens during the preschool years can be a deciding factor in whether or not a child will grow up to be a happy, healthy adult. Good eating habits, physical fitness, age-appropriate activities and a nurturing environment are all key players in the equation. Here are four ways to incorporate the best of those worlds into your preschooler’s busy life.
1. Make eating time friendly
When it comes to picky eating, preschoolers take the cake (and usually not the vegetables!). Famous for refusing anything but their favorite food meal after meal, this age group causes nutrient-conscious parents endless distress. Well-balanced diets are important, but studies show most children are eating far fewer fruits and vegetables than the USDA recommends.
How can you ensure that enough nutrients get into your finicky tot? Forcing her to choke down the good stuff is not the way to go, says Jeff Hampl, Ph.D., R.D. and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “It’s not worth the stress for you or her to force her to eat that kind of diet. Potentially, you could instigate some disordered eating,” he says.
Your best bet: Replace sugary drinks with a calcium-rich beverage, serve a favorite food along with a variety of other nutritious items, and make sure there are healthy things on your plate as well. “As kids get exposed to different foods, usually they become more accepting of them, and if they see you eating them with pleasure, that will send messages to them,” assures Hampl.
Dieticians say a preschool-perfect serving size is one tablespoon of each food for each year of a child’s age. But if your tot eats only half of her appropriately proportioned meal, don’t hound her to eat the rest, or you could begin a pattern of overeating, Hampl cautions. “We want people to listen to their own signs of fullness. Children should stop eating when they’re full and parents should respect that,” he asserts.
Turning mealtime into quality family time can also encourage healthy eating habits. “If you get kids involved in learning how to cook and if they know what’s going into a meal, they’re more apt to try it,” shares Debbie Gleeson, a learning center director. “It’s messy to let children help, but if you teach them when they’re young, they can help cook as they get older. It’s also quality time you can spend together,” she says.
Healthy eating habits instilled today will pay off for your preschooler in the long run, promises Hampl. “If kids have a normally shaped body versus being very overweight or very underweight, it can help improve self-esteem and lessen peer pressure. If children are well nourished, they’ll also have an easier chance of succeeding academically,” he says.
2. Make exercise essential
In order to keep a body healthy, exercise is a must. But could it possibly be necessary to schedule physical activity into the action-packed life of a preschooler? Believe it or not, it is, says Dr. Thomas Rowland, pediatric cardiologist and representative for the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “It’s very important early on for kids to get the idea that being physically active and doing active things is a normal part of one’s lifestyle,” he says. “It’s more of an attitude you’re trying to instill at that age, rather than actually trying to accomplish anything by having them exercise.”
But don’t run out and sign Junior up for a bunch of pee-wee teams, cautions Rowland. “We want exercise to be an enjoyable thing that isn’t regimented. It should be an expression of one’s self. That doesn’t happen when you put 4- or 5-year-olds in leagues and teams and structure,” he says. Overdoing organized exercise early on can lead to physical injuries, as well as psychological burnout. The healthiest choice: Plan regular, active family outings like hikes, bike rides or trips to the pool, and always be a good role model. “You can’t expect a child to exercise and do all those things we know are important if the parents aren’t doing them themselves,” advises Rowland.
By playing actively, preschoolers learn important social skills and increase their coordination. Adding exercise to the daily routine also builds a solid foundation for future health. “There are a whole host of diseases, such as obesity, hypertension, osteoporosis and coronary artery disease, which exercise is beneficial in preventing or treating,” says Rowland. “Most of those problems are adult problems but many of them begin during childhood. From the standpoint of long-term prevention, it would make good sense to get started exercising right away.”
3. Occupy kids according to age
Academic standards are becoming more stringent. Should your preschooler start studying now? “From the standpoint of brain development, we know that the early years of a child’s life are really crucial in terms of preparing the child for the rest of his life, let alone the beginning of school,” says Mary Temke, Ph.D., an extension specialist in human development. “The child needs to be stimulated and have as rich an environment as possible,” she recommends.
However, the mental calisthenics you choose for your youngster must be age-appropriate and fun. Overdoing early education can lead to discouragement and to negative feelings about school. “If children are expected to do too many activities, ones not geared to their developmental stage or ones they’re not interested in, they will become stressed and their behavior will mirror that,” cautions Temke. Warning signs of stress include eating problems, sleep disturbances, crankiness, aggressiveness, withdrawal and regressive behavior.
The perfect combination of play and learning differs from child to child. Developmental age rather than chronological age should be your guide, says Gleeson. “Try not to compare your children to others because all are unique in their learning. Make them feel confident and let them make mistakes. Work with them, and be patient because they all learn at different paces,” she says.
Nursery school can be a fun way to help prepare children for the more learning-intense years to come. “A quality preschool program can contribute to their success in school and to their language development, as well as their ability to cooperate and share,” says Temke.
Children who don’t attend preschool can acquire those same skills by attending playgroups and by taking regular visits to educational, fun places like a zoo, library or kid-friendly museum. Age-appropriate board games and simple craft projects are other terrific ways to mix learning and fun.
4. Build a nurturing nest
Home should not only be a place where basic needs are met, but one where a child feels loved, respected and safe. A healthy combination of control, warmth and communication can create such a shelter for your preschooler.
In a nurturing home, there must be plenty of positive interaction between adults and children, as well as age-appropriate discipline and limits that exist for the child’s benefit, says Temke. As children become more independent, the nurturing must extend beyond the walls of home, as well. “Be involved in everything they do,” advises Debi McGivern, mother to three biological children and one foster child, now all well-adjusted, successful young adults. “When the kids were little, our life truly did center around our children and it continues to. Even as the kids got older, we made sure we were part of what they were into and that we understood it,” she says.
Parents who spend a lot of time away from their preschooler can still be actively involved in the nurturing process. “When my husband was traveling, if there was a special event he was going to miss, he always made sure he called to see how it went and to say sorry he missed it,” says McGivern. There are plenty of ways to keep a long distance parent-child relationship close. Temke suggests exchanging messages recorded on cassettes or videotapes, and filling “memory boxes” with tokens from daily life. The boxes can be explored when the family is reunited.
Children raised in nurturing surroundings radiate self-esteem as they grow. “They tend to be happier, friendlier, more secure, more self-reliant and more responsible,” says Temke. “They also demonstrate more independent behavior and have more control over themselves,” she comments. Plus, memories of a loving home are cherished for a lifetime. “Our [present] home has always been a safe haven and a welcoming place,” says McGivern. “Growing up, my home was too, and that was something for which I was grateful. I knew I could always go home, and that’s the way it is here.”
Find the time to incorporate these four action steps into your preschooler’s life and you will give your child a lasting gift. Your loving home and guiding hand will provide him a stable foundation on which to build a happy, healthy future.
Kelly de la Rocha is a freelance writer and editor, and the mother of two young children.