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teaching children about wellness

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.


One of the best ways to increase the chances that your children will adopt wellness concepts is to model attitudes and behaviors consistent with a health-enhancing outlook on life. Sermons are always more effective when demonstrated than preached.

I have two sets of suggestions to help you teach your children about wellness. One is a short list of specific behaviors that, if practiced in your fashion day in and day out, will go a long way to insure that you are a great parental model. The other is a couple wellness games to play that could help your children think specifically about wellness, understand it in some depth and strengthen their motivation to follow your lead in living this way. The first part I'll call Modeling Wellness; the second Playing Games.

Modeling Wellness

  • Demonstrate the importance of fitness by making time to exercise every day, no matter how busy you are, what the weather is like or what other inconvenience might exist (during vacation, for example.) There are SOME exceptions, such as illness or an occasional rest day, but not many. Resolve to make no excuses and you won't be tempted to look for any.
  • Choose a varied and balanced diet, have lots of good food around for snacks (fruit, for example) and eat well yourself, even if the kids are demanding the popular sugary, fat-laden choices. Don't do battle over individual meals -- how you dine most of the time will make the biggest impressions.
  • Master effective self management. Respond to events and circumstances like Mr. Cool Dad, or Serenity Mom. Focus on seeking the best outcomes for situations and not overreacting to such potential stressors as bad behavior by others, excessive time demands or money worries. Remember -- you are onstage and your kids are in the front row, orchestra each time during the day something difficult comes about. After a bit of practice, you might come to enjoy your ability to deal with tough situations with panache, quiet calm and, best of all when possible, humor. All of these responses save energy and lead to better decisions and healthier children.

Playing Games

There are times during family outings, long car trips, and respites from TV when a game is just the thing for good fun and, in this case, a bit of wellness education. Here are a few suggestions for teaching children about wellness during such occasions.

Make Like an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh -- Build a Pyramid!

This game could be used to communicate the basics of healthy foods without using good and bad labels that lead to either/or choices. You could even use this game as a way to plan a few meals and to ponder choices to make before visiting a fast food outlet. Have the kids draw or build a pyramid (building block toys are widely available). Note the strong foundation of the pyramid. Mention that the top will have to be lighter than the bottom for good balance. (At this point, some of the kids might draw the lesson of the pyramid for healthy eating before you get around to asking for such ideas!)

Talk about or get ideas from the kids about the kinds of foods that would fit in the different levels. Have on hand some actual foods that go in each category, such as grain products for the base to use with all meals. One assignment might be to choose some cereals, breads and pastas that this modern day family of “Egyptians” might want to keep on hand for pyramid dining. Recall the idea in the modeling part of this article that children love to imitate what their parents do, so use the pyramid as your foundation for family wellness dining.

Pick A Car That Suits Your Body

Cut out images of some of the most expensive, prestigious cars from magazines, as well as photos of a few clunkers and a sampling of in-between vehicles. Then, make up a test or set of questions about how to create a body that is most like the kind of car models the child admires. A question for the game might be, "If you were going to treat your body like a car, which kind would it be?" Some possible questions, though you can readily make up your own, might be along these lines:

  • When you are a big person, do you want a body like a RACE CAR or "one of these" (point to the clunker choices)?
  • Does the car you picked require any special care, or can you do whatever you want to it, put any kind of fuel in it and expect that it will never "get sick" or break down?
  • If your car were a person, how would you recharge the battery if it runs low? (Children need to realize that sleep is very important for good performance.)
  • If it were a person, would it matter what kind of fuel you used to refill the gas tank?
  • If it were a person, how important would it be to check to see if the car's radiator has enough water? Does water have an important role for us?
  • How do engineers learn about obtaining the best performance from your car? How do doctors know these things about our bodies? What do WE need to know about how our bodies work?
  • Cleaning the car helps prevents rust and enables it to look good. Is this why we bathe, brush, floss, shampoo and so on?
  • Does it matter what the car weighs? Why -- and is there a similar effect of added weight on our bodies?
  • What if smoke came from the car--would this concern you? Should people assume that smoke in the lungs or other organs has any affect on their bodies?
  • You might conclude the game at some point by asking if there is not one striking difference between making mistakes with the car and with your body? One difference to note, though there are obviously many, is that you can trade in a car for a newer model if you have the money, but you have to stick with the one body you get in life as long as you live --no matter how much money you have.

Summary

There are many resources for teaching children about wellness. The National Wellness Institute in Stevens Point, WI is a good resource for educational materials, in general, and children's wellness, in particular. Many internet sites also offer wellness education. One of the above games was adapted from a free monthly e-mail newsletter from the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension. Search around the net and you will be amazed at all the ideas you will find for teaching wellness to your children. But, no matter what games or lessons you describe with words, the best teaching device will always be your own good example. Enjoy the process and good wishes.

September 2000

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