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Physical and mental health for young children
Physical and mental health for young children

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1 Definition of terms

You will begin by looking at language and definitions associated with health. But what do children think ‘being healthy’ means? In order to hear a child’s views, take a look at the thoughts of 8-year-old Oscar.

Activity 1 Terms

Timing: 5 minutes

Take a few minutes to think of words or terms that you’re aware of that relate to children’s health. Make some notes in the response box below.

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You may have come up with words such as health, health promotion, health education, mental health or wellbeing. You may have included a list of health conditions, such as eczema or asthma, or terms that relate to whether it is short-lived and sudden (acute) or on-going (chronic).

But what do some of these terms mean in relation to children’s health?

An image of four children jumping up and down in a green space
Figure 1 Happy, healthy children

Here are some of the terms used in relation to health, and their definitions. The terms ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used together, but look at the definitions for these terms separately.

Table 1: Definitions
Term Definition

The World Health Organisation (WHO) define health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 2022).

This definition of health is more than 70 years old and despite the many medical advances that have happened in that time, the definition is still the same. It states that physical and mental health are of equal importance, it also suggests that where people live, who they live with, and the quality of their lives – which all link to wellbeing – are important factors that contribute to overall health. And importantly, the definition states that health isn’t merely the absence of disease or infirmity, suggesting that an individual can have a disease, or a condition, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unhealthy.


Wellbeing can be defined in many ways. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wellbeing as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy’. Statham and Chase (2010, p. 2) define wellbeing as ‘generally understood as the quality of peoples’ lives … it is understood … in relation to objective measures, such as health status’ … You may find other definitions.

Physical health

Physical health is often used as a term that relates to a physical condition that affects a particular part of the body. For example, an infection can affect one part of the body, such as pneumonia that affects the lungs, but it can also have other physical symptoms such as extreme tiredness, pain and a high temperature. The term physical health can be used in relation to an individual’s level of fitness, strength and ability to move around.

Mental health

Mental health can be defined in various ways:

  • A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to her or his community (World Health Organisation, 2018).
  • Child mental health, the complete wellbeing and optimal development of a child in the emotional, behavioural, social and cognitive domains (NHS, 2019)

The definition of mental health in the national ‘No Health without Mental Health’ policy is that it is a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment. This point was described by Dr Geraldine Strathdee (2015) as a ‘defining moment in mental health care’. She made this claim because this definition acknowledged that some mental health difficulties can be prevented. Everyone has mental health, and the state of mental health is heavily influenced by environment and events in people’s lives. Mental health can be likened to a windscreen wiper because it can oscillate between a state of being good or poor, as illustrated in Figure 2 (in the next section).

Mental health difficulties

These can be defined as ‘an interpretation of illness and the medicalisation of behaviours considered to be beyond the norm (Burton et al., 2014, p. 4). This term is used to describe a variety of conditions children may experience, including mild, moderate to severe, and ensuing conditions ranging from anxiety or depression through to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders.

Health promotion

The World Health Organisation (2018) define health promotion as the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. It moves beyond a focus on individual behaviour towards a wide range of social and environmental interventions.

This definition has informed many health promotion models, most famously, the Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion (WHO 1986), which include actions such as building healthy public policy; creating supportive environments, strengthening community actions, developing personal skills and reorienting health services. Health promotion models require individuals to learn how to promote their health by engaging with health education.

Health education

Health education is any combination of learning experiences designed to help individuals and communities improve their health, by increasing their knowledge or influencing their attitudes (WHO, 2018). Educating people about health has been seen as important for the last 150 years or so, before that, little was known about the causes of poor health and diseases.

As knowledge and understanding about the causes of illnesses and poor health has increased, there has been a great deal of attention given to how to promote health by the provision of better living conditions. And importantly, improved knowledge of how to prevent diseases and illnesses has meant that there is a stronger focus on educating people about their lifestyles in order to develop health promoting habits.

Preventable health conditions

As the title suggests, there are conditions that can be prevented in a range of different ways. Preventable health conditions are described as being communicable or non-communicable.

Communicable preventable health conditions

Those that can be passed on, or communicated, between humans (and sometimes animals and insects) via fungi, bacteria or viruses. For example, measles or COVID-19.

Non-communicable preventable health conditions

Conditions that are not passed on, but are caused by genetic inheritance, or can be caused by lifestyle choices. For example, maintaining a healthy weight may prevent, or at least minimise the possibility of heart disease, or the development of diabetes, as well as other conditions that are associated with excessive weight and obesity.

Acute health conditions

A generic description of an illness that appears suddenly and affects a child’s health usually for a short period of time. Illnesses can vary in severity, such as a common cold which can come and go within a few days, or a more severe illness such as meningitis.

Chronic health conditions

Chronic health conditions can be described as a health condition that affects a child for longer than three months. Children are increasingly being diagnosed with chronic health conditions.

The most common, chronic conditions that affect young children in high income countries include asthma, diabetes and eczema. As many as 10–15% of children have asthma, which means that in a class of 30 children, between 3–5 of those children are likely to have asthma. Eczema is thought to affect 11% of young children and the number of children with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes is also increasing. Sickle cell anaemia is a common serious genetic chronic condition that affects children’s quality of life.

Chronic conditions can have a profound impact on children’s lives. For instance, they may have dietary restrictions, or they may need to have inhalers or other medications, such as injections, to manage the symptoms. The symptoms of chronic conditions can be painful and unpleasant, and in some cases, life-threatening; asthma attacks are still a cause of child deaths in the UK.

All of these health conditions will be looked at in more detail as you progress through the course.