Increasing incidence of chronic disease and mental illness threatens to overwhelm Australia’s health budget in the coming decades, and cause significant disability and burden for millions of Australians and their families. Many of these conditions have their roots in the health attitudes and behaviours formed in early childhood. Health promotion in early childhood is therefore an essential strategy to improve population health.

Education is a driver of good health and a universal and cost-effective platform for health promotion. In Australia, substantial attention and investment have been directed towards health promotion in schools (especially over the past four decades) and maternal and child health (over the past century). Opportunities to integrate health promotion into other parts of Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) system are now emerging, as the ECEC sector evolves. Research in this area is undergoing significant growth, but remains underdeveloped.

More than half of Australian children aged 2-4 are enrolled in ECEC, and more than 90% of children attend preschool in the year before they start school. Many ECEC services involve families and communities in service provision. ECEC settings represent an area of significant, untapped opportunity to improve health outcomes at population level, providing avenues for collaboration across all levels of government, and across health and education portfolios.

Evidence suggests that health promotion interventions in ECEC settings can be effective, particularly where parents and experts are engaged, where programs and implementation are high quality, and where interventions are embedded and sustained. But data also show that there is room for improvement in how children’s services – and the sector as a whole – approach and embed health promotion in ECEC programs.

All levels of government are engaged in some aspect of ECEC provision, across multiple departments. This briefing focuses on areas where the Australian Government, working in partnership with the states and territories, could leverage its capacity, expertise and investment to lift the consistency and quality of health promotion across the ECEC sector by:

  • investing in innovation and research, with a particular focus on families of greatest disadvantage, and collaboration between health and ECEC systems and providers
  • working with key stakeholders to develop a model of excellence in health promotion in ECEC, including national investment in tools and content to support this
  • integrating a focus on ECEC, and ECEC strategies, into the national health strategies currently being developed.

Authors

Kate Noble
Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute
Jen Jackson
Education Policy Lead, Mitchell Institute
Melinda Craike
Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health