Some children as young as 3 years of age have conditions that can cause heart and blood vessel problems early in adult life. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. High blood levels of certain fats and sugar, being overweight and high blood pressure occur in preschoolers. Lifestyle choices associated with having these conditions begin in early childhood.
Early education programs are a good place for young children and their families to learn to make healthy lifestyle choices. Most published studies focus on promotion of healthy weight through diet and exercise. These measures are effective while practiced. Health education has long been thought to be more effective when learning by doing is coupled with teaching how and why children and families should make healthful choices.
Researchers in Madrid, Spain studied the impact of a special early health education curriculum (SI!) owned by the Foundation for Science, Health and Education, the SHE Foundation (http://www.fundacionshe.org/). The curriculum uses materials from Sesame Workshop. The SI! curriculum focuses on how the body/heart works, how to manage emotions as well as diet and physical activity. Over 2,000 preschool children from all the schools in Madrid that had more than 50 children in each age group participated in the study. The researchers randomly assigned 12 schools where preschool teachers taught a special health education curriculum and 12 schools where preschool teachers taught their usual curriculum. The study lasted three years.
An article in the September 2015 Journal of the American College of Cardiology describes what happened. The researchers collected the data at the start of the study, and annually thereafter.
The researchers measured the children’s knowledge, attitudes and habits related to diet, physical activity and body/heart function as well as their physical characteristics related to body fat and being overweight.
Children left the study when they reached 6 years of age. So children who started the program at 3 years of age had 3 years of the curriculum. Those who entered the study at 4 years of age had it for 2 years. The children who entered at 5 years of age only had the curriculum for one year. Those who had the curriculum for 3 year had the largest improvement in preventive health knowledge, attitudes and habits. Less exposure to the curriculum resulted in some, but less gains in these measured outcomes.
The results of this study strongly support using well-designed health education curricula in early education programs as a way to prevent diseases that cause so much suffering in later life.
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