Refreshed at The Well

A ministry model where children are agents of change

by Kimberly Baker

Eat better. Get moving. Have fun. These all seem simple enough, and they are the guiding principles of a ministry in Memphis, Tennessee. At The Well, Church Health’s innovative prevention and wellness program for children ages six weeks to 12 years and their families, the staff partners with families to embrace healthier lives through education, recreation, and motivation. A research-based and developmentally appropriate program, The Well was established 18 years ago to make an impact in whole-child health. The programming is designed to strengthen families in body and spirit.

The Well addresses six root causes that affect the health and wellness of children and their families: nutrition, physical activity, self-esteem, body image, safety education, and violence prevention. We also infuse creativity and spirituality throughout our work. By teaching prevention and wellness through the lens of whole-child health we are able to think about children as agents of change within their own families.

Our interactions with families teach us that several pathways can lead a child to become an agent of change within the family.
1. The child naturally enjoys engaging in a healthier lifestyle through healthy eating or exercise. The child’s desire and motivation to do so gets the parents involved in healthier lifestyle choices.
2. The child learns specific information regarding health from a source outside the family, becomes excited by this new information, and wants to teach the family. The parents move toward action because of their child’s interest.
3. The child has a medical diagnosis, such as childhood obesity, prediabetes or prehypertension, that causes the family to take a closer look at their overall eating and exercise habits.

Concepts of healthy living are introduced for all ages at The Well. In our Infant-Toddler environment, we make sure to provide toys, manipulatives, books, and visual displays that reinforce staying active and selecting fruits and vegetables over prepackaged foods. Starting when children are two, we begin teaching healthy eating and exercise concepts. With the permission of their parents, we introduce children to new foods through our Alphabet Appetite curriculum. We designed our Mini-Circuit class so children can select specific forms of gross motor play and physical exercise in order to build their confidence and skills. By exposing children to a variety of healthier options we are planting seeds to grow a healthier population for the future. When young children participate in healthy activities, it makes healthy living seem normative. This has a positive effect as they grow older and more independent.

We have seen some parents reluctant to join the family-based classes change their attitude once they see the joy on their children’s faces as they try new things together.

Plan to Get Healthy

Whenever possible we allow children to make choices in our environment so they can practice self-regulation and mindfulness. Having the ability and opportunity to make choices in a safe environment assists children now so that they can feel more comfortable making choices throughout the spectrum of their lives.

One of the ways we intentionally teach choice is through our signature child-led health coaching program called Plan to Get Healthy. Starting at age four, children create their own personalized plans. They set reasonable goals with guidance from our educators. We work with families over a 90-day period to reinforce each child’s goals. We designed Plan to Get Healthy so that children have a voice in making changes in their own lives. We teach that plan is both a verb and a noun. The verb plan requires action on the part of the child and support on the part of the family. The noun plan is a tangible object that helps to hold children accountable as it guides and inspires their actions. We explain that every day we get to make choices and that children have some power in their choices to grow up healthy and strong. We talk in terms of strengths and growth edges. We use the term growth edges instead of weaknesses in order to teach children that human beings are always growing. The fact that we can adapt and change is one of the remarkable things about us. Planting this seed with young children helps them to see that anything is possible, especially when it comes to setting and achieving reasonable goals.

A great deal of research shows the positive impact on health for children who are exposed to healthy concepts early in life. One study out of the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard produced an extensive report entitled “The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood.” This report clearly states that “Healthy children are more likely to grow into healthy adults.” By the same token, in 2017 Ted Garland, a professor of biology at the University of California, stated that from his research, “Those who have grown up doing regular exercise are more motivated to get out there and exercise as adults.”

Families Healthy Together

Many stories from The Well illustrate how families are embracing healthy change. One of the clearest areas of impact has been in nutrition. Research supports that it takes several attempts to develop a taste for a food. Once we learned this, we wanted to create a curriculum we could use in our program but also offer to the homes of our families and the educational and faith communities. Alphabet Appetite has simple recipes that go through the alphabet. Children ages two to five try these recipes, do an art activity connected to the food, and then take the recipe home to share with their families. Parents often are surprised to find out that their child enjoyed hummus, dried fruit, or edamame. Many parents have reported that a child who has tried a recipe with us begins to request it at home.

Throughout the years we’ve seen many tired parents come through our doors telling us the only reason why they came that day was because a child insisted on not missing a certain program. One of the most popular classes is yoga for children. It has been a driving force in getting children to come to our program and they often encourage their parents to join them.

For many years research has supported that families who engage in healthy behaviors together have better outcomes for both the parent and the child. This foundational research is one of the reasons that we offer family-based classes at least once a week. Some of these classes include yoga, nutrition, art, and general exercise. Because we recognize that a parent is a child’s first teacher, we value parents modeling enthusiasm in these areas. We have seen some parents reluctant to join the family-based classes change their attitude once they see the joy on their children’s faces as they try new things together.

Inspiring Health in Congregations

Many healthy concepts from our tested programming at The Well transfer to congregational ministries. Some messages children hear can have an impact that lasts a lifetime. The following examples incorporate inspirational Scripture verses as motivation to make healthy change.

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23).

One of the points we emphasize in The Well is that every day you get a chance to become your best self. It is a process and it takes time. This verse from Lamentations is especially helpful when children set goals but feel challenged in meeting them with ease. We try to teach that doing your best every day is the goal, but it is extremely important to have a measure of forgiveness and grace for yourself when you experience challenges, just as God’s mercy comes to us every day.

“Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).

We use this verse to inspire children to eat things that are close to the original way God made them. A practical way to exemplify this in the life of your congregation is to have healthier offerings during snack time, congregational meals, and celebrations. Fruits and vegetables should always be included as a choice.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This verse reinforces that our bodies are a gift from God. The way we treat our whole being is important—body and spirit. Leaders in the church can model, teach, and reinforce whole-child health within the life of the congregation. Treating your “temple” with respect can manifest itself in many ways, such as getting the right amount of sleep, thinking positively, finding an exercise you enjoy, being willing to try new foods, and committing yourself to learning at school, home, and in your faith community.

There is no one right way to inspire children and families to live healthier lives. If you feel called in making a difference regarding whole-child health in the life of your congregation, then take time to evaluate the needs of the families you serve, educate yourself about best practices in health, and be prayerful as God leads you to make a positive impact.
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