All children have the right to experience quality care and learning opportunities in an environment that provides for their well-being, health and safety, let’s explore what that really means…

So we know that a strong sense of health and wellbeing is supported by good nutrition, an active lifestyle & provides children with the confidence, energy and optimism required for them to meaningfully contribute to their world. As early childhood professionals and primary caregivers, we should be thinking about much more than just the practical health and safety issues in our day-to-day work. We must also recognise the long-term effects & consider that children have differing physical & emotional support needs, therefore should evaluate each situation appropriately.

Wellbeing incorporates both physical and the psychological aspects of a child’s development. We also know that without a strong sense of wellbeing (access to a healthy environment) it is very difficult to find a true sense of ‘belonging’. This, in turn, impacts the ability to feel safe, trust others and be comfortable enough to just ‘be’ actively present (aka ‘being’). Without these, a child cannot move forward enough to ‘become’ and then develop onto continually building their capacity through the natural cycle of Being, Belonging and BecomingThe Australian National Early Years Learning framework/theory.

The Australian NQS QA2 – Element 2.3.2 states that “every reasonable precaution is taken to protect children from harm and any hazard likely to cause injury.”

So the question really is… what is likely to cause injury and how can we find out?

“Children born in a western nation nowadays will be exposed to more chemicals than any other time in history”

Did you know that over 85,000 synthetic chemicals are commonly used in the western world today and only a small fraction of these have been properly tested for toxicity on human health? It’s not just about our physical wellbeing; we must also consider the long-term health and safety for all involved, and how this sends a clear message to children via our choices & role modelling of these. Early childhood workers, teachers and parents are exposing children to chemicals in a vast amount of ways, and every day…

Some of these include:

  • Cleaning products
  • Food and Drink
  • Art and stationary materials
  • Chemicals used for ‘learning’ opportunities
  • Personal care products
  • Contaminated land accessed
  • Building materials
  • Maintenance and renovations
  • Pest management
  • Air, Water & hygiene facilities etc..

The US Environmental Protection Agency 2005 study reportedly found at least 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies who were tested. These chemicals were noted as being from pesticides, fast food packaging, coals and gasoline emissions and trash incineration.  Children are much more vulnerable to the toxicity of chemicals because their little bodies are still growing and developing. The Lancet Neurology researchers outlined that new chemicals are most likely contributing to what they dub the “global – silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.” In 2006, the team had released a list of five neurotoxins that may be contributing to everything from cognitive deficits, all the way to attention problems. That list has now grown and based on research that’s recently come in, they have since outlined a total of six more!

Another often overlooked area of children’s exposure to chemicals is the types of food and water we are providing, encouraging and allowing into the learning environment. Don’t forget that most food has been grown using pesticides, antibiotics and fertilisers – their chemical residues can linger for quite a long time. Processed foods usually contain artificial sweeteners, preservatives and colours, most of which have been shown to dramatically affect the health and well-being of the consumer… And we haven’t yet touched on the all-important subject of genetically engineered foods, a possibly new and even greater potential hazard for us to now consider.

Neurobehavioral problems affect approximately 10-15% of children born today and genes are proven to play a large role in some of these disorders – but not quite as large of a role as many people may think. About 35% of the disorders can be accounted for by genes alone, but when studying the cases the environment made up for the unaccounted percentage. Outlining those compounds can be tricky, but the research is mounting and clearly points towards a fast growing list of chemicals that we should work hard to avoid.

Alice G Walton (PhD in Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience) was recently quoted in Forbes as saying… “Because of the frequency with which these chemicals are present in our everyday lives – even the banned ones, and considering the rising rates of developmental disorders in children, an urgent review & change should take place for the sake of children health: “A new framework of action is needed”.

So upon reflection and while working in accordance with the National Quality Standard, some of the steps we can take are:

  1. Research the current best practice recommendations and work towards ideals by…
  2. Assessing the current use of the environment, materials and processes for things like;

    • Types of chemicals used and accessed and by who
    • Communication and consistency of usage/storage
    • Labels – create a key, table or scale, in order to highlight usage & safety level and then…

3. Measuring the risk vs benefit in order to inform your decision making when…

  • Removing the unsafe chemicals/items & providing better alternatives where possible
  • Monitor this, assess the aspects to measure outcomes & review as needed
  • Update the service policy to suit the current process and service needs

#tip… I always have a copy of the relevant governing legislation (in my case, it’s the National Quality Standards Resource 3 – Guide to the NQS) in hand when undertaking these types of steps, projects & audits. I use this as not only a reference to ensure I’m constantly guided by the relevant standards & elements, but also as an easily accessible, user-friendly and informative document, that supports the entire process from start to review. Because as we all know, we are never completely finished when considering the nature of continuous improvement within the early childhood sector.

Stay tuned for my next article titled From Start to Review. It aims to highlight the ongoing nature of reflective practice, how we can better use this to support our role,  save time and will explore ways to further our understanding of what really is required to produce quality… consistently!

This guest post is written by Kelly Sims, from Tasmania, Australia. Kelly is the CEO of professional development and customised training provider: Education and Care Connections. Kelly has years of experience with the EYLF, guiding early years practitioners to consider quality in everything they do.  

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