Healthy heart initiatives at early learning services

Published on Wednesday, 05 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 03 February 2020

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Home is where the heart is, but when it comes to heart health, early childhood education (ECE) services also play an important role in teaching youngsters how to eat well, stay active and look after their hearts in childhood and beyond. 

Throughout February, many ECE services are also raising funds for the Heart Foundation by holding a Big Heart Day and continuing to work towards their Healthy Heart Award. 

To see how ECE services support young children’s heart health and learn more about Big Heart Day and the Healthy Heart Award, we spoke with Frances Arenhold from the Heart Foundation. 

Thanks for your time, Frances. Heart conditions often affect adults, but can you tell us why it’s important to promote heart health in young children, too?

Lifelong eating habits are formed in childhood, so this is the perfect time to establish a healthy relationship with nutritious food and provide positive role modelling for children, as well as for their parents and whānau.

How much physical activity should young children be getting at their ECE service and what are some ECE activities that are particularly beneficial for youngsters’ heart health? 

Toddlers and preschoolers need to be physically active for at least three hours spread throughout the day. This means that ECE services should plan regular opportunities for young children to be physically active, through both structured and unstructured active play. Ideas include playing with balloons or balls, dancing, navigating obstacle courses, playing hopscotch or climbing. 

Active play is beneficial as it establishes healthy behaviours for lifelong heart health – and children can develop skills and enjoy themselves along the way. 

What are some ways that ECE services teach youngsters about heart-healthy eating? 

Services can do this in a structured way by doing things like taste-testing new foods, learning about the different food groups and reading books about food at mat time. 

They can also teach children in an unstructured way by role modelling, serving a variety of nutritious foods across the week and by providing and promoting healthy food at events, like fundraisers and birthday celebrations. 

We see a range of creative and innovative ways that ECE services teach and encourage healthy eating habits, and our Heart Foundation Nutrition Advisors, who work with ECE services nationwide, share these approaches between services. 

Young children can be picky eaters. What are some ways that parents and educators can encourage little ones to eat healthy foods? 

It’s common for children to go through phases where they’re hesitant about new foods or simply refuse to eat them. This can often be associated with increasing independence. 

Whether you’re a parent or an educator, it’s important not to be discouraged. Instead, gently keep offering new foods, bearing in mind that it can take up to 15 tries before a new food is accepted.  

Try involving children in preparing their food too, as they’re more likely to eat something they’ve had a hand in making. Three of the Heart Foundation’s favourite kid-approved recipes are:

The Healthy Heart Award is open to all ECE services in New Zealand, helping educators create a heart-healthy environment for young children. Could you please explain the Award a little more? 

The Healthy Heart Award helps ECE services create an environment that promotes healthy eating and physical activity. 

Currently, 765 services are participating in the programme, and the Healthy Heart Award has three levels which an ECE service can choose to enrol in:

Services can start at whichever level they prefer. Once an ECE service signs up to the programme, they’re supported by their local Nutrition Advisor to undertake different activities to achieve their Healthy Heart Award. 

The activities are spread across seven strands, covering:

  1. Healthy eating policy
  2. Physical activity policy
  3. Food provision
  4. Healthy eating learning and teaching
  5. Physical activity learning and teaching
  6. Collaboration
  7. Professional development

The Healthy Heart Award is a fun way to get children, staff and parents engaged in healthy eating and physical activity.

ECE services can sign up to the Healthy Heart Award

With heart disease being the single leading cause of death for adults in New Zealand, what are some simple ways that busy parents and educators can look after their own heart health? 

The Heart Foundation has several top tips for a healthy heart. We recommend that you:

  • Do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day, e.g. actively playing with your children by running, jumping and climbing
  • Base your diet around foods that are as close as possible to how they’re found in nature. This means eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, some whole grains in place of refined grains, plus legumes, nuts, seeds and other sources of healthy fats, like oily fish. You may also choose to include non-processed lean meats, poultry and/or dairy in your diet
  • Quit smoking
  • Lower your alcohol intake
  • Manage stress by prioritising an activity that you enjoy or one that helps you relax at least once a week

The Heart Foundation’s Big Heart Appeal is happening in February. What are some fun ways for ECE services and children to get involved?  

Early learning services are encouraged to sign up to have a Big Heart Day fundraising event any time during February. 

Each Big Heart Day event helps raise vital funds for the Heart Foundation’s Big Heart Appeal to support healthy hearts for life. There are lots of ways to make the day fun. 

ECE services can:

  • Hold a walk-a-thon around their local community, with everyone dressing up in red to highlight the cause
  • Create a whole plant picture from real vegetables, using carrots for the roots, celery for the stem, spinach for the leaves, seeds for the pollen and broccoli florets for the petals
  • Host a healthy breakfast and fitness morning with whānau, using play equipment to get those hearts pumping
  • Plan a Big Heart Day lunch together, serving up different healthy food groups

ECE services can also get in touch with their local Nutrition Advisor for more ideas.

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