App for the pre-K set promotes healthy eating, exercise

Preschoolers can be notoriously picky eaters – and that’s if you can get one to sit still for a meal.

A series of free, evidence-informed apps for preschool-aged children, developed by a Cornell researcher and colleagues, aims to encourage healthy eating behaviors and exercise. A majority of parents said the apps helped their children try new foods and raise their activity level, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior on Sept. 22.

“Screens aren’t going away,” said Laura Bellows, associate professor of nutrition in the College of Human Ecology. “We want to substitute for sedentary screen time and give children active screen time instead.”

Bellows co-authored “Engaging Preschoolers in Food Tasting and Movement Activities Using Mobile Apps,” with first author Ligia Reyes, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell. Additional coauthors include Susan L. Johnson, PhD, of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and Barbara Chamberlin, PhD, of New Mexico State University. The work extends from the $5 million, USDA-funded HEROs (HEalthy EnviROnments) study, which concluded earlier this year.

Adults can download the set of four distinct apps – collectively known as Foods and Moves – from the Apple app store and Google Play. Using the apps, children guide a half-dozen cartoon monsters and four animated human preschoolers to try new foods and boost their indoor activity through Tasting Party Express, Jungle Gym 1, Jungle Gym 2 and Spin-n-Move.

Together, the Foods and Moves cast encourages children to try new foods and supports the building blocks for such age-appropriate movements as hopping and skipping. The goal is to promote physical activity and introduce new food- and movement-based vocabulary.

The HEROs study provided families with information and activities that the apps put into action. The apps also support adults who want to extend these lessons to the real world, whether at the dinner table or through playful activities.

“We intentionally developed the apps to help parents  engage their preschoolers in food and movement activities,” said Bellows, citing feedback from parents living in places where outdoor play can be constrained by weather or safety considerations.

Initially, she said, members of the development team imagined the apps as activities for caregivers and children to do together, engaging in play. “Parents on the team agreed we needed to provide multiple ways to use the apps that fit into daily life,’” said Bellows, herself a parent. “The apps can be done together or while we’re doing laundry, making dinner. I can feel good putting this on for seven minutes – I’m not just putting my preschooler in front of a TV show.”

In the study, which assessed how parents perceive the overall quality of Foods and Moves, as well as how their preschoolers’ behavior changed after using the apps, the majority of parents surveyed reported that their children’s willingness to try new foods was positively influenced by Tasting Party Express. Nearly all parents indicated that their children’s physical activity increased after playing Jungle Gym 1 and 2.

Most parents observed that their children continued playing the apps in the year after they were introduced, and 80% of parents said they were likely or very likely to recommend the apps to other families.

This project is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Sharon Tregaskis is a freelance writer for the College of Human Ecology.

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