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

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

A series of free, evidence-based apps for preschoolers developed by a Cornell researcher and colleagues aims to encourage healthy eating and exercise. A majority of parents said the apps helped their children try new foods and increase their activity levels, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

“Screens aren’t going away,” said Laura Bellows, associate professor of nutrition at the College of Human Ecology. “We want to replace sedentary screen time and give kids 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 fellow at Cornell University. Additional co-authors are 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.

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

Together, the Foods and Moves cast encourages kids to try new foods and supports the building blocks for age-​​appropriate movements like hopping and hopping. The aim is to promote physical activity and to introduce new nutrition and exercise-based vocabulary.

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

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“We purposely designed the apps to help parents engage their preschoolers in food and exercise activities,” Bellows said, citing feedback from parents who live in places where outdoor play is affected by weather or safety considerations may be limited.

Initially, she said, development team members envisioned the apps as activities that caregivers and children could do and play together. “Parents on the team agreed that we need to offer multiple ways of using the apps that fit into everyday life,” said Bellows, himself a parent. “The apps can be done together or while we’re doing the laundry or making dinner. I can feel good wearing this for seven minutes — I’m not just putting my preschooler in front of a TV show.”

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In the study, which examined how parents perceive the overall quality of Foods and Moves and how their preschoolers’ behavior has changed after using the apps, the majority of parents surveyed reported that their children’s willingness to try new foods , Party-Express was positively influenced by trying it out. Almost all parents reported that their children’s physical activity increased after playing Jungle Gym 1 and 2.

Most parents observed that their children continued to play the apps for the year after their launch, 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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