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Introduction COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL Rapid Development Children’s early years are the optimal time for influencing their development across their life­ spans. During a child’s first years of life, development occurs at a rapid pace. Just think about the dramatic physical changes that happen in a child’s body between birth and the first day of kindergarten! Children’s bodies grow more and faster during these first years than at any other time in their life. Children learn to use their bodies in myriad new ways during this time too—to walk, to talk, to reach, to climb, to run, to build, to write, and so on. As remarkable as this visible development is, the development going on inside children’s bodies, especially in their brains, is even more remarkable. Much of the brain’s physical development takes place after a child is born. In the first five years, a child’s brain forms neural connections that will be used throughout her lifetime. All the while young children are developing physically, they are also developing socially, emotionally, and cognitively. During the early years, the quality of children’s relationships, attachments, and overall social and emotional climate impacts their mental health and cognitive development. Again, consider the differences between an infant and a five-year-old in his ability to express emotions, overcome challenges, and get along with others. While infants have some mechanisms for engaging with others and ensuring that their needs are met, by the age of five, a child has developed many of the social skills she will use throughout her life. She will use these social skills to live and work alongside others and to engage in healthy relationships. Because all this development—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—occurs so rapidly in the early childhood years, it is the perfect time to influence behaviors. When very young children start on a path of healthy behaviors early in life, they are more likely to reap the full benefits of their healthy habits. Healthy habits learned early in life have lasting impacts; they become part of the child’s lifestyle and natural way of being. And because development occurs at such a rapid pace in the early years, it is the best time not only to establish healthy habits but also to correct poor ones that have taken root. The longer an unhealthy habit persists, the more challenging it can be to change. Think about your own not-so-healthy habits. Those unhealthy habits that have been part of your lifestyle for a long period can be very challenging to change. Imagine if you would have addressed those habits when they first started, before they became second nature. When you use Healthy Children, Healthy Lives, you will promote healthy habits and support children in their development of a healthy lifestyle to last a lifetime. Positive Influence During children’s early years, the adults in their lives make a huge impact on their wellness. Very young children are almost completely dependent on adults to protect them from harm and to provide everything they need to grow and develop. Even as children become able to feed them- selves and meet some of their own physical needs, they continue to rely on adults to help them make good choices. On their own, children may not choose healthy foods, safe activities, or the other things that support their overall wellness. xii COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL