There is clear evidence that early experiences have a significant impact on the biology of the body and on brain development, with implications for lifelong physical and mental health and well-being.
Patterns of eating, physical activity, and sleep that are established in early childhood continue into later life. Inadequate nutrition and sleep, low levels of physical activity, and persistent stress in early childhood can lead to later health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.
Connections between cognition and physical and emotional well-being
Children thrive in programs where they can engage in vigorous physical play in natural outdoor spaces and playgrounds that present manageable levels of challenge. While these environments need to be safe, it is also important for them to provide children with interesting opportunities for a reasonable degree of risk taking. In addition to providing physical benefits, active play outdoors strengthens functioning in cognitive areas such as perception, attention, creative problem solving, and complex thinking.
High-quality early childhood programs play an important role in supporting children’s developing sense of self, autonomy, and competence. A safe environment that offers consistency and continuity as well as graduated support for children’s growing independence and capacity for self-care enables children to tackle challenges, learn to persevere, and explore ways to cope with manageable levels of positive stress.
The ability to self-regulate is an important component of children’s development. A growing number of studies have identified this ability as central to children’s long-term physical, psychological, behavioural, and educational well-being.
Mental health and wellness
Ontario’s Policy Framework for Child and Youth Mental Health reports that 15 to 21 percent of children and youth in Ontario have at least one mental health disorder. Left untreated, these can have significant impacts on the quality of children’s experiences in early years settings as well as later consequences such as poor academic achievement, failure to complete high school, substance abuse, an inability to live independently, health problems, and suicide. Early years programs can . . . support families by taking a strength-based approach. When educators establish positive, authentic, and caring relationships with families and provide a safe, non-judgemental environment for shared learning, everyone benefits.
Ways in which children might demonstrate health and well-being
Goal for children: Every child is developing a sense of self, health, and well-being. Children have a sense of self and health and well-being when they:
• are physically active and confident in their growing abilities;
• are increasingly aware of and able to make healthy choices to meet their basic needs (e.g., for food, sleep, physical activity, self-care);
• experience a sense of competence, autonomy, and agency as they participate at their own pace throughout daily experiences and interactions;
• are increasingly able to identify, monitor, and manage stress levels and engage in strategies for self regulation (e.g., of emotions, attention, and behaviour);
• are increasingly able to take initiative, tackle challenges with enthusiasm and persistence, and cope with and adapt to changes, frustrations, and the unexpected in everyday living;
• are developing a strong sense of self and the ability to value their own unique identity;
• are increasingly able to recognize, value, and respect the unique identity and perspectives of others
Ways in which programs can foster health and well-being
Program expectation: Early childhood programs nurture children’s healthy
development and support their growing sense of self. Educators can create contexts to support children’s health and well-being by:
• providing healthy meals and snacks and establishing positive eating environments that are responsive to children’s cues of hunger and fullness;
• incorporating opportunities and time to practise self-help and self-care skills based on each child’s capabilities throughout daily routines and activities;
• providing regular daily opportunities (responsive to individual capabilities) for children to be physically active and explore the world around them with their bodies, minds, and senses;
• limiting activities where children are sedentary for an extended period of time;
• creating safe and stimulating outdoor spaces for intentional active play that is individualized and adapted as needed to support children’s varied abilities, offering challenges that are within each child’s ability to master;
• facilitating children’s efforts to take reasonable risks, test their limits, and gain increasing competence and a sense of mastery through active play and social interactions;
• recognizing and supporting children’s developing and varied self-regulation abilities in all domains (biological, emotional, communicative, cognitive,
• designing environments that are attuned to children’s varied sensitivities, arousal states, and need for maintaining a calm, focused, and alert state;
• reaching out to all families, including those who may be experiencing stressful and challenging circumstances, and helping them to make connections to formal supports (e.g., community agencies) and informal supports (e.g., connections with other families and/or their own support networks);
• participating in professional learning and connecting with community partners to ensure the program fosters social and emotional well-being and resilience for children and families.
Additional considerations for educators
Many early years programs are beginning to view their outdoor playgrounds as places for discovery and learning with bodies, minds, and senses rather than just places to blow off steam. For example, some programs are removing large play structures that dominate the space in favour of more natural outdoor playgrounds. These may include a variety of natural surfaces such as grass, sand, and pebbles; pathways to follow and hills to climb; garden areas; low platforms; and an assortment of large, open-ended materials to encourage building and creative problem-solving and foster imagination and a sense of mastery. Adapting the outdoor environment to support the varied capabilities of children helps to ensure all have equitable opportunities for active outdoor play.