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

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England: The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

The EYFS is the statutory guidance from the Department for Education for providers of Early Childhood Education and Care providers in England. The most recent version of the EYFS was published by the Department for Education in 8 December 2023 and came into effect 4 January 2024.

The cover of ‘Early years foundation stage statutory framework for childminders: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five’
Figure 10 The Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework for the early years foundations stage

The Early Years Foundation Stage states that ‘providers must promote the good health, including the oral health, of children attending the setting’ (Department for Education, 2024, p. 34). This statement conveys the understanding that children’s health is linked to their learning. The EYFS also states that ‘children learn best when they are healthy, safe and secure’ (p. 23). Therefore, improving the quality of children’s health is a way of improving the quality of children’s learning.

The play-based pedagogy of the EYFS is highly beneficial to children’s health and wellbeing, although this may not be immediately evident. The opportunities for indoor and outdoor play can be an important way to promote children’s health by offering opportunities that may prevent physical and mental health difficulties from developing.

As of January 2024, there are two versions of the EYFS available; version one is the statutory guidance for childminders (Department for Education, 2024a) and the other version is the statutory guidance for group and school based providers (Department for Education, 2024b). The guidance relating to the health of babies and children are similar in both documents. The page numbers in the content below relate to the EYFS for group and school based providers (Department for Education, 2024b).

There are over 50 pages of guidance in the current version of the EYFS and 35 aims that relate to supporting and promoting children’s health. The areas of health promotion fall into broad themes which include:

Table 1 The child health promotion themes in the EYFS
Theme 1 Healthy eating and drinking which aims to provide children with a diet that is balanced, meaning that the food and drink includes the essential nutrients for health, as well as offering food that is of the correct calorific content for children’s energy needs. Fluids that are included in the diet should supply the hydration that children require and not necessarily supply additional calorific content. Healthy eating and drinking play a significant role in preventing and reducing the incidence of childhood obesity.
Theme 2 Promoting physical activity which is essential to good health and the prevention of obesity.
Theme 3 Preventing the spread of infection by providing a safe environment which is hygienic, in particular, the guidance highlights the care and attention that must be given to ensuring that the preparation of food (and drink) to children and babies is conducted in an appropriate environment. In addition, the guidance highlights the importance of teaching children to become responsible for their self-care and personal hygiene needs in order to prevent the spread of infection.
Theme 4 Promoting wellbeing and preventing poor mental health The prime area of personal, social and emotional development within the EYFS are directly linked to promoting good mental health in children. The requirement for each child to have a key person is aimed at ensuring ‘every child’s care is tailored to meet their individual needs… (and to) offer a settled relationship for the child’ (p. 29). Such a relationship is aimed at offering security to each child so that they have a special person who knows and understands their needs.
Theme 5 Safeguarding and promoting children’s health and wellbeing The Working together to safeguard children statutory guidance states that the legal responsibilities of early years providers to safeguard children are outlined in the EYFS, this was a requirement that was made explicit in Section 40 of the Childcare Act in 2006. Section 3 of the EYFS includes the safeguarding and welfare requirements which must be followed in order to comply with the law. The first sentence states that ‘children learn best when they are healthy, safe and secure (p. 23), thus making explicit links between the importance of promoting the health of children as part of the legal duty of safeguarding children. Failing to promote the health of children can therefore be seen as a failure to safeguard children.

Now reflect on what you have learned.

Activity 2 Reflecting on how health can be addressed through curriculum

Timing: 15 minutes

In the previous sections you’ve looked at some examples of how the content of curricula taught in pre-school and education settings can help to improve the physical and mental health of babies and children. Consider the following questions and make some notes about your thoughts:

  1. What are the benefits of promoting and supporting children’s health through the curriculum in education settings?
  2. Are there any challenges or considerations that you can think of?
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You may have thought that providing health promoting activities and routine for young children while they are in the care of an education and care setting is an inclusive approach. As children become older, curricula guidance can provide opportunities to teach children the skills and knowledge that help them to develop their understanding of what they can do to be healthy. However, it is important to consider how broad guidance can meet the needs of each unique child. For example, how do you address the needs of children with health conditions, special educational needs or complex medical needs? How can the concept of ‘healthy eating’ be applied to children who have dietary restrictions because of a medical need (such as diabetes)? And how may diet be restricted because of religious teachings? Continuing to use the example of healthy eating, how can this issue be addressed with parents in ways that are sensitive to the parent’s wishes, capabilities and their family situation?

Curricula guidance can help our thinking in relation to how children’s health can be improved in many ways. For example, children’s mental and physical mental health can be addressed by encouraging children to practise self-care and manage their own hygiene needs. Thus, children can develop their independence, which in turn can promote their self-esteem and confidence. These are concepts linked to social and emotional development. Supporting children to develop confidence in these areas can be empowering for children and can help children make the transition between pre-school and school education settings.

You may have thought of other challenges or considerations.

The following section looks at legislation and policy within communities.