Young children are fascinated by their own bodies. From an early age, they use their senses to explore how their body works. They delight at the new sounds they can make and love touching, smelling and tasting new foods and interesting objects. As they get older, they develop a better understanding of their bodies in space. They become adept at moving in different ways and at different speeds and are more aware of their body's capabilities and limitations. They enjoy exploring their heartbeats, are interested in what's inside their bodies and have probably visited the doctor and dentist - first-hand experiences they might want to act out in role-play situations.
Practitioners can build on children's growing awareness of how their bodies work by practising and talking about daily routines, healthy eating and physical activity and backing this up with age-appropriate resources and activities.
A child's growing awareness of their own body often comes from comparing themselves with others with physical differences - a sibling or some one of a different sex, for example.
Early years consultant Marion Dowling, says, 'Broadly speaking, until the age of three, children are not particularly aware of their gender. Differences will come to mind from the age of two. But the awareness that I am boy and you're a girl doesn't really come until around three and then it can be quite a hazy idea.'
In the nursery, practitioners have a key role to play in helping children understand differences and similarities. Mrs Dowling explains, 'It's the adult's role to really emphasise that we have many similarities. For example, we've all got hair and a big smile, even if our legs are a bit weak or we have only one arm. And at around three years, when children have a notion of their gender, it's a matter of adults, particularly in nursery settings, having conversations and reading books about subjects like, "I was a baby and now I am a big girl". This should happen with smaller children. With older children, practitioners could make distinctions between themselves and animals.'
Early years consultant Marie Charlton says that when it comes to care routines, practitioners should talk to children from an early age about what is taking place and why. 'Explain to the child, "I am going to change your nappy to make you clean and comfortable; we are going to wash our hands to make them clean before mealtimes". Sing songs like, "This is the way we brush our hair; This is the way we clean our teeth".'
The following are some useful resources to help stimulate discussion about the body and caring for it:
- Caring for Outdoor Ted, £60, from www.mindstretchers.co.uk, is a box of resources focused on dressing and caring for outdoor Ted. It contains a teddy, outfits to suit various types of weather and personal care items such as a hairbrush, facecloth, toothbrush, bandage, mirror and blanket.
- Set up a hospital role-play area with dolls, beds and blankets so that children can look after the sick dolls. The PushCart, £143, from www.communityplaythings.co.uk, which is strong enough for a child to sit in, is great for moving around 'sick' children and dolls.
- Place mirrors on the walls or on the ground so that the very youngest can see themselves and have fun with their own reflection. Try the Small Movable Mirror, £37.30, from www.wesco-eshop.co.uk.
- Grow healthy foods in the nursery garden or pots and involve the children in harvesting and eating crops like potatoes, tomatoes, peas, lettuce and cress.
- Use books to support play and activities wherever possible, for example: Baby Brother by Eve Marleau and Steve Evans (Usborne Publishing); Eyes, Nose, Fingers and Toes by Judi Hindley (Walker Books); My Five Senses by Aliki (Collins); The Listening Walk by Paul Showers and Aliki (Harper Collins); and Going to the Dentist/Doctor, both by Anne Civardi and Stephen Cartwright (Usborne). There's also the Funnybones series of picture books by Allan Ahlberg and Andre Amstutz (Puffin), about a family of skeletons.
Skeletons, bodies and bones are of great interest to young children. In the early years, they often show an interest in skeletons but have difficulty in making the conceptual links between skeletons and actual bodies.
Reflections on Learning, www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk, developed Zak's Bones, £9.99, to help children make the connection between the human body and the skeleton which supports it. It has eight A4 sheets with photographs of Zak's body on the front and Zak's bones on the reverse which become see-through when held up to a window or placed on a light box.
This concept can be reinforced and developed by using What's Inside Animals, £26.99, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk, a set of 16 photographed animals with their full skeleton on the reverse allowing children to make connections between the bones and the animals themselves. Other sets in the range include Insect X-rays, Shell X-rays, Animal and Human X-rays.
Here are other activities and resources that will help children gain a greater insight into their bodies:
- Introduce a fully working stethoscope. As well as using the stethoscope for listening to heartbeats before and after exercise, try listening to the sounds made when stroking different parts of the body with the stethoscope (hair, skin, nails). Try the Stethoscope, £5.99, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk.
- Encourage children to talk about themselves. Talking Tub - Ourselves, £54, from www.mindstretchers.co.uk, covers routines, hygiene, health and body awareness for children up to reception. It contains a toothbrush, flannel, curler, nail clipper set, hairbrush, plaster, bandage, hairband, mirror, glasses, soap, comb, dental mirror, tape measure, knitting wool, leather, waterproof fabric, cotton fabric, growth chart and ten A4 photographs.
- Use a DVD to support a topic on healthy eating or physical exercise. India's Sunday Funday shows a day in the life of six-year-old India and all the things she does to keep fit and healthy, including eating her five-a-day and getting lots of exercise. This film is contained in A Child's Eye View of Keeping Healthy, Staying Safe, £24.99, from www.childseyemedia.com.
- Celebrate diversity by asking children to notice their differences and similarities. Provide paints for exact skin, hair and eye colour for children to paint pictures of each other. Use a height chart and make a shoe size chart, handprints, footprints and All About Me books.
- Draw around the body of a child lying on the floor and let the children fill in the body parts. Younger children can draw in the hands, hair, eyes and nose. Alternatively, older children can explore the My Body Wall Chart, £36.99, from www.earlyyears.co.uk, with 28 detachable pieces.
- There is an abundance of jigsaws and games on the market about healthy eating and body parts but they will not necessarily support children in this area unless they are carefully chosen and backed up with direct practitioner involvement.
Weavers Fields Community Nursery in Tower Hamlets, London, has a Healthy Early Years Award and it is also a breastfeeding-friendly setting.
Manager Jo Vickers says, 'To help children make the connection with healthy food and lifestyles, we've made the kitchen part of the nursery and they get involved in cooking and preparing food for meals. Staff talk to the children about the food they eat and the importance of cleaning their teeth after meals. The children understand about washing hands, cleaning the table and washing up afterwards - all things that they can take part in.
'We sometimes set up a role-play clinic or doctor's surgery with a reception telephone, notepad, pens and keyboard. In it, we have a skeleton on a stand. This provides an opportunity to discuss the skeleton and the bones inside our skin, and children can feel their bones in relation to the skeleton bones. Older children find it funny when we say that we would collapse in a heap without our bones to hold us up. Muscles are fairly easy to discuss because the children really enjoy showing us their muscles after exercise or eating. A large set of teeth and a toothbrush is a useful way for children to see teeth and the jaw.
'We have an A3 laminated eye chart for role playing opticians, and doctor's bags, stethoscopes and bandages to put arms in slings. Children really enjoy putting eye patches on the practitioners. We also have a collection of health posters on immunisations, sugar-free medicines, coughs and sneezes. These provide useful information for parents, as well as children.'
Here's where to buy some of the resources mentioned above:
- Human Skeleton on a Stand, www.glsed.co.uk, £249.95, or the Half-size Human Skeleton Model, £39.99, from www.tts-group.co.uk
- Giant Teeth Model, a large, anatomically correct, sturdy rubber model with a giant toothbrush, £15.99, and a pack of five dental mirrors, £5.99, from www.earlyyearsresources.co.uk
- A set of five Healthy Living Posters, £8.99, from www.earlyyearsresources.co.uk
- The Medical Kit, £20.99, from www.earlyyearsresources.co.uk
- Value Blindfold Set, £10.95, from Cosy Direct on 01332 370152
- The Human World, £22.60, a set of 35 photo cards each showing a different part of the body. They help children build awareness of their own body and learn some basic notions of health and hygiene. Available from www.wesco-eshop.co.uk.