The Little Village Nursery is helping children and their families learn about healthy eating through play, cooking, and gardening.
Tucked between two high-rise blocks of flats in Wolverhampton — a city in central England — the Little Village Nursery hums with activity. The joyful sounds of children at play fill the air.
Especially in the “home” corner, where the children pretend to grocery shop, cook meals, or serve orders in a cafe. But instead of the typical plastic pretend food, the play area is stocked with real fruits and vegetables.
“Our goal is to start promoting healthy eating at a very young age, so that the children have healthier lifestyles when they're older,” nursery manager Wendy explains. “If we can get it right when they're young, we'll get it right when they're older.”
The Little Village Nursery began partnering with Vitamin Angels UK, through the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), four and a half years ago, getting assistance with offering nutritious snack choices to the 96 children who attend the programme. It’s one of 12 participating NDNA nurseries in the UK.
“We explain to the children what healthy eating is about in lots of different ways. And we try to do a lot through play,” says Wendy. “The children are now naming vegetables that they didn't know before.”
In addition to weaving real produce into the play area, the Little Village Nursery serves those same fruits and vegetables as healthy snacks, and even has the children cook with them.
Snack time usually includes fresh choices such as cucumbers, carrots, or tomatoes for dunking in a mint dip or hummus or wrapping in a bit of cheese. The staff also created menus based on the Children’s Food Trust for Public Health and government guidance. The children even help cook recipes like soups, stews, and pizza using wholesome ingredients.
“The snacks we now provide now are a lot different to what we used to before we joined this project,” explains Wendy. “And there's a bigger variety. So the children get a choice of what they would like to eat.”
Teacher Abigail says the children enjoy the programme. “They all ask for snack all the way through the session. They love it.”
Teacher Helen agrees.
“The children are actually now saying, ‘Can I have carrots?’ or ‘Can I have cucumber sticks?’ and they're going for the more healthier options and they're really enjoying what they're having to eat at snack time,” she says.
Many of the children’s families are living on a tight budget and often rely on quick-and-easy fast food options. The staff realized that providing parents with information on how to make healthy eating convenient and cost-effective was critical to making a larger impact.
So in addition to healthy snacks during nursery, the staff came up with creative ways to engage parents at home, sharing healthy recipes they can make and enjoy with their children.
“The parents love that we do a lot of cooking with the children and that we’re offering healthier options,” explains teacher Abigail. “We found a lot of the children that weren't eating certain foods are eating them at home now, which has surprised a lot of our parents.”
Many parents didn’t expect such young children to be able to cook.
“Parents are really thrilled. We get a lot of comments about how amazing it is that we’re doing this with such small children, particularly our two-year-olds,” explains Wendy. “They told us, ‘They can't cook. And we said, ‘No, they can cook. Have a go at it with the children.’ The children can cook.”
As a result, parents are asking for more of the nursery’s healthy recipes.
“We've found we've been able to offer the parents some more education about what they can do with the children, with different recipes to make the more healthy option, but in a way that they're able to do it,” explains Abigail. “So it's not always that it's more expensive or it's more time consuming, and it's not that it's them having to do something while the children are off doing something—it’s bringing them together.”
Little Village Nursery staff makes sure to take the children outside every day to play.
In addition to offering plenty of outdoor playtime, the nursery has a garden where they grow their own fruits and vegetables. Last year, they began selling strawberry, pea, and tomato plants to the parents for a nominal fee.
“Our gardening projects are blooming. Not only are parents taking the plants home to grow in containers, we’re putting the money back into the nursery,” explains Wendy. “We’ve been able to buy a greenhouse and put money towards equipment for the children to do more gardening. It's lovely.”
“I think what we've been doing has really helped the children with wanting to learn about healthy eating,” explains Abigail. “To be honest, they really enjoy it. They enjoy eating it and they enjoy cooking it, which makes them want to eat it because they can make this lovely thing that looks really appetizing.”
Another benefit of having more nutritious food choices? Energy.
“We've seen more active children. They're physically more active,” explains Wendy. “They're also willing to learn a lot more. But I think the most rewarding thing is seeing the children thrive from our teaching. We've made a difference in their lives.”
Photo Credit: Little Village Nursery, UK