By: Dr. Linda Carson
When I was growing up, a sailor with big arms and a gruff voice had an influential message about getting strong by eating spinach. Popeye was so influential that he increased the sale of spinach by 33% in the 1950’s. I understand that there is an effort under way right now to bring him back for a new generation of children, but this time without his habit of smoking a pipe! A new Popeye and other children's characters with health messages are desperately needed in our country and around the world.
Currently, American children see an estimated $1.6 billion a year worth of food and beverage marketing, and many of those ads are foods that are high in calories and sugar, but low in nutrition. Some of our cereals and other processed foods in a box are so depleted that they have to be “fortified” and even then, the nutritional value is extremely compromised. For some products, there is not much nutritional difference between the contents in the box and the cardboard the box is made from.
Until food and beverage companies are using children’s characters to market only healthy products, it is up to each family and the other significant influencers to share and repeat consistent health messaging with children and families. The research (samples noted below) confirms that children’s characters are profoundly influential, whether positive or negative.
And a very positive thing that the family and/or preschool teacher can do is take advantage of what we know from research---create or introduce a familiar character to help deliver messages about healthy nutrition, physical activities that help make your body healthy, and appropriate dental health behaviors. Plus, having a character as an influential “assistant” helps with the consistency factor that we humans have trouble with at times.
I have spent my career promoting healthy choices, and advocating for parents as the best play partners ever. After teaching in public school enough years to appreciate the needs and barriers of that context, I spent the next 30 years teaching University students who wanted to be teachers. While methods of delivering the content has changed over the years, one thing has remained constant---the need is great for dedicated, well prepared teachers who collaborate and engage with parents on the profoundly important task of getting young children ready to make responsible decisions about learning and life.
In recent years I have had the privilege of developing resources for parents and teachers who are laying the foundation for healthy decision-making by children and entire families. Long before Popeye was given a do-over, we introduced CHOOSY as a health hero for this generation of young children. Choosy’s name stands for Choose Healthy Options Often and Start Young.
If you want to use Choosy as a health hero in your home or classroom, see www.choosykids.com for examples of unique, easy to use resources, especially children’s music that contains health messages. There is such a thing as stuck song syndrome that can work like reminders. If children (and adults) can’t get that song out of their heads, health messaging is working!
Bottom line: If a character promotes it, whether in a story book, on a window cling, or in music, a young child is likely to be influenced by the character’s preferences! What a concept and what a big help to busy Mom’s and Dad's.
**Research examples supporting the influence of children’s characters on health
choices and preferences:
Kotler, et al Journal of Health Communication (2012);
Roberto, et al Pediatrics (2010);
Lanigan, J.D. Child: Care, Health and Development (2010)