By Dr Zali Yager on 17 Apr, 2024

Many years ago I sat on the floor in kindergartens and homes, conducting play-based research interviews with 3-5 year olds to find out how they felt about their bodies. Surrounded by the chaos and noise that comes naturally with children, I had a slow realisation: “Oh no, it starts much earlier than I thought…” 

Some of the things the children came out with were hilarious, but as the first study with children this young, the findings were concerning. More than a third of three-year-old children (37%) indicated that they would like to have a different body (Spiel, 2013), and many more had already clearly internalised some of the societal ideas that "thin is good and fat is bad".  

As someone who was, at the time, focused on creating body image programs for high school students, this work shifted my attention towards primary school, and then to the early years, in order to get in early before the influences of peers, family and the media can creep in. 

This kind of thinking - that "thin is good and fat is bad" - becomes problematic as children get older in two ways: 

  1. If they start to believe that they are in a larger body - from the things people say to them or as a result of comparing their body to what they see around them or in the media - they will begin to feel shame around that and can develop disordered eating attitudes and behaviours in an effort to try to change their body. 
  2. Children can feel more justified in teasing kids in larger bodies, which can contribute to eating disorders in the people that are on the receiving end of this body shaming. 

Eating disorders are serious psychological conditions, and more common than you think. More than 1 million Australians are estimated to be currently living with an eating disorder, and this can have a devastating impact on people’s capacity to reach their full potential in life (Butterfly Foundation, 2024).  

We all want to give our young people the best chance of staying happy and healthy, and as educators, you get to play an important role in developing children’s early attitudes about food, movement and their bodies.  

As you would see in your centres every day, children are perceptive and observant - they often internalise implied messages from the things we say and do in relation to our own and other people’s bodies. So here’s how we can role model more positive attitudes towards our bodies, food and movement: 

Watch your words  

Negative comments about our own bodies can come so easily, but if we can catch them before we say them out loud, it’s much better for the young ones around us. This means no talk about weight gain, weight loss, diets, or the things you don’t like about your body or appearance - even if you are joking! If we want our kids to practice kindness towards themselves and their bodies, we have to show them how to do this by role modelling being kind to ourselves and our bodies.  

Think “I provide, they decide”  

When it comes to food, we want to encourage children to listen to their body’s internal signals that tell them when they are full and when they are hungry. It can be tempting to encourage kids to eat more or less based on what we think they should be eating, but it’s much better for them in the long run if they can listen to what their bodies are telling them.

This is based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model of feeding, a respected model designed to foster healthy eating habits in children. According to this model, parents/carers are responsible for deciding what, when, and where food is served, providing a structured and predictable environment. Children, on the other hand, are suppported to decide how much they eat of what is offered, and whether to eat at all. This approach helps children learn to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues, promoting autonomy and healthy eating behaviours without pressure or coercion.

Greetings and goodbyes  

It’s so tempting to talk about how ‘cute’, ‘handsome’, ‘tiny’ or ‘tall’ our kids are - but if we can adjust our greetings to focus on things that are not related to their appearance, this can help them build their self esteem based on what they are doing, rather than what they look like. The same goes for the conversation you have with parents at the end of the day. Emphasising how helpful kids were, or how hard they tried when learning something new, helps to reinforce the message that the way they look is not as important as their personal qualities.  

It’s these little reframes and small changes to our practice that help to create environments where children can build an understanding of their strengths and qualities, their self esteem and their body image - right from the beginning.  

Access free training on this topic

We know how important it is for educators to be positive role models, and that it is hard to get access to the latest information when you are busy in your centre. That’s why we have created Body Blocks by Embrace Kids, seven short and engaging videos (total watch time 30 minutes!) to support you in making the small changes that can make a big difference in children’s lives in terms of how they feel about food, movement and their bodies. 

The program was developed by paediatric dietitian Dr Lyza Norton and a team of body image experts based on the latest research, including the research that informed the Confident Body, Confident Child program led by Dr Laura Hart from The University of Melbourne. 

Body Blocks by Embrace Kids is one of nine initiatives funded by the Federal Government as part of the Embrace Kids Australia project, so we are able to offer this program free of charge in 2024. All of our programs at Embrace Kids are age-appropriate, and aim to prevent body image issues and eating disorders by improving protective factors and reducing risk factors in all the environments where young people live, learn and play. 

For more information, visit and follow the links to register and have Body Blocks by Embrace Kids delivered straight to your inbox. 


Butterfly Foundation (2024). Paying the Price Report, 2024. 

Spiel, E. (2013). Sociocultural and Individual Predictors of Children’s Body Size Stereotypes, Body Size Ideals, and Dieting Awareness from 3 to 4-Years-Old: A Longitudinal Investigation. Clinical Psychology Doctorate. 

Spiel, E. C., Paxton, S. J., & Yager, Z. (2012). Weight attitudes in 3-to 5-year-old children: Age differences and cross-sectional predictors. Body image, 9(4), 524-527.  

Ellyn Satter Institute.


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