The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 25, 2013

Lawmaker seeks better childhood for vulnerable

CHARLESTON — Sound body, sound mind.

A new idea? Hardly.

In fact, Roman satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis, who died around 140 AD, came up with the phrase that often is cited by those advocating mental and physical development.

While he didn’t use this specific slogan himself, Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, pointed in that direction Tuesday, as his Committee on Children and Poverty moves into three specific directions for improving the lot of West Virginia youngsters.

Exercise is certainly a key element, but so is mental development, and in that regard, Unger says he is tinkering with the idea of expanding early childhood education so that is available to children as young as 3 — or one year earlier than the existing setup.

Fully a decade ago, Unger chaired a committee that crafted early childhood education.

“Now, those 10 years are up, and we have phased it in universally, so we’re now looking at building on that, going from maybe 4- to 3-year-olds and building the capacity for families and parents,” the Senate leader said.

“That’s important to continue building a healthy family in order to support a healthy child.”

Last winter, the Legislature approved his committee’s so-called “Feed to Achieve” legislation that assures all school children a nutritional breakfast and lunch.

Housing is another tier of the committee’s approach.

“A third is physical activity,” he said.

“We’re looking at how to get children more active physically to engage their bodies so that their minds are engaged, since this is part of student achievement as well.”

Not only does this tend to make young minds alert, but Unger said the physical activity has its role to play in attacking the obesity problem, one that some officials say is at the epidemic level in the state.

Proper nutrition must be eyed when the obesity issue is considered, he emphasized.

“Many children are getting calories but not nutrition, and that’s where our obesity is coming in,” he said.

“There also is the lack of exercise and physical activity that is causing it.”

Unger doesn’t share a widely-held view that youngsters are fat because they spend too much time ogling video games and the like.

“There are those video games that actually have you dance and exercise and so forth,” the senator said.

At the same time, Unger said the committee wants to provide more avenues for “pure play and recreational activities,” as opposed to a child consumed by high-tech devices that keep him indoors.

Unger emphasized that the early childhood expansion under consideration — just like the existing program — is entirely voluntary.

“It provides a resource if they do want to enroll their children,” he said.

Is 3 too tender an age for instruction? Unger doesn’t think so.

“If you look at the research, from birth to 8 years old, is critical,” he said.

“From birth to 3 is even more of a learning curve that occurs as far as child development is concerned. Their physical as well as their mental agility and capacities are developing at that young age. And they’re like sponges.”

Unger said early development is different compared to the traditional school environment.

“It’s not just kids sitting at desks in front of a chalkboard,” he said.

“Early childhood is interactive. They actually integrate the parents into the learning of the child so the parents learn how to work with the child, even at home. It’s not in any way taking the child away from the parents. The parents are still critical and remain the most primary source. But it’s to provide them resources and opportunities as a family in order to engage in this learning and physical activity.”…

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