Focus on Pediatrics-Program helps kids get physical, eat well

Preschool perfect time to teach healthy eating

The statistics are alarming: North Carolina youth are two to three times more likely to be obese than other youth across the nation, according to a study at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

A fitness study of North Carolina children and youth found that North Carolina children grades K-12 are less flexible, have poorer cardiovascular fitness, and have a higher percentage of body fat than youth nationally.

To remedy the situation, Durham-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina joined with the state's top leaders on health and fitness to create Be Active Kids, an interactive nutrition and physical fitness campaign for preschool children.

Preschool-age children were selected because a literature search showed that children begin to develop their attitudes and behaviors at that age. Also, North Carolina has more working mothers than any other state, so the program would reach a high percentage of the children if it were created for day care centers.

"We had a vision, and then we took the facts and let them guide our program development. That is what really geared us to the preschool-age child," says Kathy Higgins, MS, senior director of community relations for the HMO.

Once the target population was selected, the group developing the program began to look at the learning environment of the day care center. They examined how children learned.

To meet the needs of the teachers and the school layout, a Be Active Kids Kit was created with all the materials held in an acrylic tub so it could be kept on a shelf for ease of access and storage. The tub holds 16 lesson plans that fit the curriculums of child care centers.

For example, if children are studying the weather, the teacher could use felt characters from the kit on the school's felt board and have the children create a story about an activity outside. The children would decide what kind of weather they need to do the activity, and they could incorporate nutrition into the lesson by discussing what kind of healthy snack to eat.

"We wanted to incorporate the activities of the child center into the Be Active Kids program. We didn't want to stop for a 15-minute lesson on nutrition or physical activity," says Higgins.

Flash cards showing raw foods and what they look like when they are prepared were created for the kit because children in North Carolina have difficulty distinguishing between raw fruits and the canned variety.

Program implementation is very simple. Preschool teachers receive a Be Active Kids Kit free of charge once they go through a three-hour training session. Instructors show the teachers how to use the materials in the kit and have them teach a lesson. Everything needed for the lesson is readily available in the classroom, so teachers don't have to purchase any extra supplies. The kit has a food pyramid and posters to aid in the teaching.

A parent newsletter also is a part of the kit. This helps teachers get parents involved in helping the children learn good eating habits.

A group of subject experts on nutrition, physical activity, and early child development reviewed the curriculum before the kit was completed. Child care center teachers peer-reviewed the curriculum as well, and it was pilot-tested.

In addition to Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the North Carolina Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health, the North Carolina Coopera tive Extension Service, the North Carolina Nutri tion Network, and the North Carolina Health and Fitness Foundation, all based in Raleigh, participated in the development of Be Active Kids.