How to Incorporate Play to Practice Heathy Habits
- Dance is exercise. Incorporate dance breaks as a transition activity like moving from play time to snack time or as a reward for completing a task, like cleaning up toys. “Clean up this mess so we have room to rock out” is a lot more motivating than “then the room will be clean.”
- Play with your food. Encourage kids to be a part of meal preparation and remember that mixing, pouring, scooping and mashing are all playful activities for kids that allow them to contribute to the greater whole of the meal. Kids are more likely to try something when they have their hands in it! Choose recipes that are less sensitive to accuracy (choose a bread instead of a cake) and don’t need an open flame (like fruit kabobs). Fruits and vegetables present many opportunities for creating patterns, shape, and number games while you slice, sort, and assemble them.
- Talk about healthy food in a playful, empowering way. Every kid wants to have superpowers, and in the human world they don’t come from radioactive spiders or fence gadgets. Let them taste test new superpower vegetables so they can power their plates. This fun language is a positive way to talk to kids about nutrition and have fun with them and will encourage them to keep trying! Superheroes never give up.
Playing with your food is more than making a mess, it’s a way to experiment and build healthy habits. We’ve long been watching the junk food industry use music, dance, slogans, and strong characters to convert sugar water into a hip, multi-million-dollar brand. The playfulness of the brand makes it irresistible to try, and the sugar and caffeine make it a hard habit to break. But these same tools can be used to make health approachable, actionable, and achievable.
Kids return to do things because it makes them feel good. Experiencing the rush of a new taste on the taste buds or endorphins after playing hard create small yet powerful positive experiences to set kids on the path to making these actions into habits. Play allows kids to experience new ideas or concepts in a lower risk environment.
Nutrition education can be exciting, engaging and empowering. Using play helps make the healthy choices the cool thing to do, not just the important thing to do. Bring the party to your table by making it irresistibly fun to be healthy.
Health skills develop through practice. Allowing kids to test a concept through play like singing along to a song about fruit, throwing down a new dance move in the name of exercise, or taking a “try bite,” the bar for failure is lowered. In fact, each of these positive experiences are very gratifying and cumulative, serving a protective effect against the plethora of negative messages they see and hear in a day.
Building a positive attitude towards health with small, cumulative wins has a far greater influence on health behaviors than external motivation. Often punitive, you’ll recognize external motivation as the classic “cleaning your plate” to be excused from dinner, withholding dessert as punishment for not eating, and rewarding positive behavior with candy. Through play, we can shift the narrative from “what not to eat” to “this is what will fuel my body best.”
With the confidence of multiple small victories, kids are hungry for more, in fact they’ll use it as a framework to make future choices. Who would have thought a kid could be excited about making healthy choices? That is the power of play.