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Birthday cakes, breastmilk and confining children's movement: A look at ERO’s report on food, nutrition, and physical activity in early childhood education services

Opinion Article
by Dr Sarah Alexander


ice cream mcdonaldsThe Education Review Office’s (ERO) descriptive report completed in July 2016 and only made publicly available from 11 April 2017 may attract some comment for not going far enough on some matters and omitting others.

Of the 202 ECE services, ERO reviewed in Term 1 2016 it thought that 87% were doing well at “promoting children’s positive attitudes to food, nutrition and physical activity." Teachers modelled healthy eating choices and children were given opportunities to make decisions about physical health. Just two services were classified as “not doing well at all”.

The most common challenge ERO says that teachers had was managing the food that parents put in lunch-boxes and brought to the service. Teachers did not want to be the “food police”.

There was insufficient physical space for children to run and engage in other gross motor activities at nearly 10 percent of services - though the services would have had to meet requirements for space at the time of gaining a license to operate which may have been some years ago.

ERO recommended that the Ministries of Education and Health, and Sport New Zealand use this information for joint decisions about curriculum, sport services and community health services.


Some omissions

1. Safety

A ban on certain food - such as peanuts for reasons such as choking hazards or a child’s life threatening allergy - can be a necessity and not a matter for the food police.

2. Belonging

Birthday cakes and celebrations including ‘unhealthy’ foods can have a place. Birthday cake may be unhealthy but should not be banned as there are ways to manage it. For example, birthday parties can be held at morning/ afternoon tea times and a slice of cake given with fruit. Ideas for different kinds of cakes can be shared with parents and parents invited to share their ideas. Some services provide cakes for children or involve children in edible cake making.

Not excluding parents from sharing food from their culture and allowing celebrations important within the culture of families to be celebrated is central to promoting a sense of belonging and community.

breastfeeding13. Earlier prevention that early childhood education has an important role to play in 

A focus on preventing overweight and obesity in childhood should be started well before children bring a packet of chips in their lunch-box or eat a piece of birthday cake.

This is something that ERO has completely missed. Its report focuses on older children in early childhood education and in schools. There are thousands of infants in early childhood education.

The World Health (WHO) organisation has reviewed the evidence on prevention of obesity and found that breastfeeding (exclusive breastmilk) during early infancy is an important component in the strategies to reduce the risk of children becoming overweight. Exclusive breast milk for the first six months has a protective effect against unhealthy weight gain in early to middle childhood.


Some comments regarding not going far enough

Gardening1. The finding that nearly 10% of the services visited had insufficient space for children’s gross-motor play and physical activity needs to be acted on

ERO has not recommended that the Ministry of Education check the amount of space freely available to children to use at every early childhood service, and if necessary re-license services for fewer children.

ERO has not said if it has referred the services it found to have insufficient space for children to the Ministry for re-measurement and re-licensing.

Teachers should not feel forced to find ways around the lack of space available for children’s movement by for example, having to take children off the premises so they can have sace to run, jump, etc.  

2. The discovery by ERO that early childhood teachers did not want to be the ‘food police’ needs unpacking

Relationships with parents and whanau: Not judging and working with parents and whanau is central to early childhood philosophy – this could have been brought out more in ERO’s report which tended to view early childhood education through a schooling lens. ERO referred to but go have gone further in detailing not telling parents what’s healthy and what’s not and what’s banned or frowned on, but instead asking parents for help and giving tips on foods that work for children at different ages and with different needs within the early childhood service setting. For example, see My ECE’s parent tip sheet.

grating cookingCurriculum necessities for all-day 5 days a week childcare requirements as opposed to part-day and casual: a longer-day curriculum could be expected to provide growing and food collecting activity (e.g. eggs from the centre’s chickens), and food preparation and cooking for children to engage in throughout the day.

When children are learning to use a knife and put marmite on a cracker, grate cheese, or peel a carrot for morning tea - thereby eating a variety of food and engaging with healthy food choices as part of the curriculum - is there a need still for early childhood teachers to police what parents put in children’s lunch-boxes? 


Read more and resources

ERO’s report – download a copy from here 

Tip sheet for parents - Lunch box tips and what to pack for your child's lunch at an ECE service

Edible gardens provide a valuable resource for teaching many aspects of the early childhood curriculum while also creating and sustaining a regular growth and supply of fruits and vegetables. Read more: research by Anna Dawson with tips and ideas for creating an edible garden in ECE

Sports and physical activity - the how to and why of teaching sports to very young children in ECE  

ECE breastfeeding-friendly checklist - assess your service and see what you need to do to improve it for breastfeeding support

Breastfeeding in ECE research - read more

Food Allergy Management and Meeting Children's Needs - read more

Preventing choking and keeping children safe when eating in an ECE environment - read more

Helping children to eat healthily and be active in ECE - read more 


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