I N  S I C K N E S S  &  H E A L T H

Teaching Health Skills to Children

Comprehensive health education in childcare programs includes teaching children health-related skills. Young children learn health skills from adults and through the contexts of daily routines, play, and observation. Childcare providers model health skills for children when they choose healthy foods, wash their hands, brush their teeth, exercise, and engage in other health-promoting daily activities.

The formation of health-related skills begins in the infant, toddler, and preschool years. The goals and reasons behind developing those skills, like good dental hygiene and nutrition, are not important to young children and are often too abstract for them to understand.

Young children participate in washing their hands, eating nutritious meals, and brushing their teeth because their childcare provider leads and guides them in that activity. You can help children begin to make the connection between the skill and the desired outcome--like brushing teeth to maintain oral health--by talking with children about how the skill will keep them healthy.

Why Teach Health Skills To Young Children?

Young children are learning important self-help skills. As children master new skills, they gain confidence and feel competent, independent, and responsible.

Childcare providers play a vital role in helping young children develop skills they will need throughout life, including health skills. The daily routines and activities of childcare are the ideal environment for practicing and mastering physical, oral, mental/emotional, nutritional, and social health skills.

Which Health Skills Are Appropriate For Young Children?

As you consider which health-related skills to teach children, prioritize those that are most important and that are appropriate for children’s interests and capability. The specific skill level depends on the age and development of the children. Even infants can be introduced to basic health skills. For example, include washing the infant’s hands with a clean wipe as part of the diapering routine.

The most relevant skills for children are typically those that they practice on a daily basis, such as nutrition, personal hygiene, safety, hand washing, fitness, and oral health. Each topic has related skills that young children can practice. For example, brushing teeth is an oral health skill, and identifying healthy foods is a nutrition skill.

Some skills, such as dialing 911 in an emergency, are not daily tasks. However, such skills are very important; so look for ways to incorporate these types of skills into your curriculum.

For example, learning to dial 911 involves more than just the ability to dial three numbers correctly. It also requires a discussion about emergencies and what to do if they occur. Planning is needed to implement this skill effectively with young children.

Teaching through Routines

Health skills should be taught in the regular course of the day’s routines and activities and within the context of play. For example, Caring for Our Children recommends teaching children to wash their hands using warm water, liquid soap, and single-use paper towels.

Children develop correct hand washing skills when adults assist them in wetting their hands, applying soap, rubbing their hands together, rinsing thoroughly, and drying with a paper towel. Singing a fun hand washing song during the process will help children learn to wash more thoroughly.

Brushing teeth is another skill children are developing. The level of involvement of the childcare provider depends on the skill level and age of the child. Younger children will need to have their teeth brushed by an adult, while older children may be able to brush their own teeth with adult supervision. Supervision, instruction, and encouragement will go a long way in helping children develop good oral hygiene habits.

Teachable Moments

Teachable moments provide opportunities to introduce new skills. For example, an ambulance or fire truck may speed by the window with its siren blaring. The children rush to the window and excitedly watch the emergency vehicle pass. This is a teachable moment to introduce the concept of an emergency and the skill of dialing 911.

As you prepare the group of children to go outside for play, discuss how running, jumping, and climbing can help them become stronger.

If you miss a day of work because of a cold, turn your illness into a teachable moment. When you return, model how to cover your sneeze or cough, and demonstrate proper hand washing. Talk about how doing those things can prevent sickness from spreading to others.

Learning through Play

Young children learn through play, and there are many ways to integrate safety skills into your daily learning activities. For example, if the children are learning skills related to oral health, turn your dramatic play area into a dentist’s office. Include charts or pictures of teeth, oral x-rays, a “lab coat” (which can be an adult-sized shirt), a dental mirror, stickers or other prizes for patients, and other props. Help children make the connection in their play between a good dental visit and developing dental skills and habits.

Parents who have health and safety-related jobs may be excellent guest speakers. Some examples include dentists, dental hygienists, dieticians, doctors, nurses, firefighters, and EMTs. Ask the parent to wear their uniform or work clothes and bring their tools and materials to show the children how they are used. Ask your guest speaker to emphasize the relationship of good habits to staying healthy.

Think broadly when you consider guests and topics. For example, X-rays are fascinating to children and are an interesting way to talk about how accidents can sometimes occur because people neglect to practice health-related behaviors.

Veterinarians are another possibility. In addition to their interesting and exciting work with animals, veterinarians can talk about health and safety skills relating to pets, such as how to properly meet an unfamiliar animal, how to safely pet an animal, and when to avoid animals.

In the block center, include health and safety-related vehicles, such as ambulances and fire engines, as well as community helpers, like firefighters and medical personnel. Engage children in discussions about healthy behaviors and how community helpers are important in developing good health habits.

Circle time activities can be used to teach children health-related songs and share health-related books. Music and reading can support your health skill curriculum; plus, the repetition frequently found in songs and stories is helpful in teaching children new skills.

Marna Holland, PhD
Parent Educator, Asheville City Preschools, Asheville, NC


Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care Programs, 2nd Edition, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, nrckids.org/CFOC/index.html

Tips for Teaching Healthy Habits to Young Children, Redleaf Press, www.redleafpress.org/client/archives/articles/rl_Mar2007_Article1.cfm

Teaching Children Health Skills. Sandbox Learning, www.sandbox-learning.com/Default.asp?Page=149

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