Setting up for healthy happy lives

Nurturing healthy children in the early years is essential to their happiness, health and sets the foundation for their future well-being. Briony Richter explores NDNA’s PANCo programme

Establishing healthy habits in the early years is a sound investment, reducing health inequalities and the risk of poor health in later life which we know limits life chances.

Yet despite this, there are some unhealthy statistics relating to our youngest children and the trend is worrying.

More than 1 in 5 children aged 4 to 5 years are overweight or obese (22.3%) according to the National Child Measurement programme and in a survey of five-year-olds in England, the national prevalence of children with enamel and/or dentinal decay was 29.3% (National Dental Epidemiology Programme (NDEP) 2022.

The recent Pisa study figures also show that children in the UK are less happy than their peers in the rest of the developed world. A quarter of UK students said they were not satisfied with their lives, higher than the OECD average of 18%.

The first five years of a child’s life are crucial in raising the importance of preventing obesity in children and fostering healthy habits, yet the EYFS does not detail specific physical activity or food guidelines for practitioners to follow.

Important and relevant information regarding the health and well-being of our youngest children is not reaching the people that need it most, our early years practitioners.  We know that parents and the home environment are key to encouraging healthy lifestyles, but with over 1.5 million children attending early years settings every day, early years practitioners are uniquely placed in playing a vital role in the future health and well-being of our children. 

NDNA’s PANCo specialist qualification (CACHE Level 4 award) recognises the importance of the early years practitioner’s role in championing change.  

A PANCo is a Physical Activity and Nutrition Co-ordinator who develops a culture of health and well-being within a setting to benefit children, parents and staff. 

By adopting the PANCo model this designated learner achieves a specialist qualification and has the credibility to promote the importance of physical activity and healthy eating within their setting. Building knowledge and understanding in physical activity and nutrition gives a practitioner the confidence and skills to lead the well-being practice and support children and staff, while extending this to parents and the home.

The PANCo programme is a three-part process starting with the Start Life Well Assessment. This assessment allows the learner to audit the current health and well-being of their setting and enables them to plan a detailed PANCo project that is specific to the needs of their own setting.

The Start Life Well approach provides the opportunity for a setting to identify their specific needs, as well as a suitable learner, in advance of committing to the PANCo programme.  Identifying the start point of improvement, the right well-being initiative for a setting, is not always easy or obvious, but the Start Life Well assessment gives clear direction and focus without increasing workload and putting additional pressure on staff. 

Achieving the Start Life Well Award can be used to demonstrate a setting’s commitment to improving the health and well-being of children, parents and staff within it. Which is good news for parents but can also help with staff retention.

The PANCo programme provides settings with a framework and a pathway to follow, and because it complements curriculum guidelines, policies and current practice, is more easily adaptable to integrate into existing health and well-being policies while supporting children, families and staff.

The Becoming a PANCo programme provides the opportunity for continuous professional staff development as they share their knowledge and skills whilst boosting confidence and self-esteem within their teams and when talking to parents. 

The programme combines not only a qualification, but also a new role and career path, in a sustainable model that gives practitioners more tools to implement positive change. The role is supported by the PANCo Quality Standards (Start Life Well) and membership of the national online PANCo Network to share best practice. 

An important aspect of the course is to support learners in managing change and any barriers to this within their settings by understanding that change is possible.  By being aware of challenges that could come up, learners are equipped with the ability to plan and prioritise actions within their projects and focus on the opportunities to bring about change. 

Having a PANCo champion in settings can be the difference that makes real change happen. And we know this has a meaningful impact on the health and well-being of everyone. They can drive positive change but also maintain positive attitudes and habits towards health and well-being in our youngest children. Truly making a difference, that lasts a lifetime. 

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