At Treehouse Learning, we begin our day with Big Circle, a community gathering in the Big Room for a whole-program morning routine embedding music, movement, play, and whole-brain learning opportunities via relationship and community. After our unique Treehouse Learning Welcome Song, we move into PACE, which is a physiological process delivered via a song to integrate all parts of our brains and move into a joyful rhythm, pace, or tempo for moving about our day.
PACE, part of our embedded Brain Gym curriculum, is an acronym, in reverse, for Energetic, Clear, Active, Positive, and the routine begins with toasting, celebrating, and cheering WATER, singing the song, “Water, Water, it’s good to drink… drink water every day!” Why do we begin our PACE routine by sipping water?
In short, water is life-it is everything!
At birth, water makes up about 80% of our body weight, and 70% of an adult’s body weight. Our brains are about 75% water, and all of our major and minor organs, as well as cellular function, rely on water to properly, let alone, ideally, function. And yet, most of us trudge through our days in a chronic state of dehydration, particularly at our altitude and climate here in this corner of eastern Boulder County!
The Human Body is an Electrical System
Humans are dependent on water for optimal operation. Water reduces fatigue, improves short-term memory, and helps children learn. Water is necessary for sustained, focused energy, and proper hydration increases attention span and integrates the mind and body.
Drinking water and maintaining proper hydration throughout the day is probably the single most effective way we can improve moods, support learning, regulate emotions and even change our behavior.
Our brains are like powerful computers connected to a complex electrical network of communication pathways. Water is a conductor of electricity, and adequate hydration allows for maximum conductivity and information flow. Adequate hydration is necessary to maintain electrical transmissions within our body that lead to all sensing, learning, thinking, and acting.
Early Childhood Education and the Vagus Nerve
Water is critical to regulating our nervous system by way of water’s interaction with our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body, originating in our brainstem, where it monitors and receives all information about the functioning of our heart, lungs, and other internal organs, including the organs that digest food, absorb nutrients, filter toxins and eliminate waste.
The vagus nerve functions to orchestrate all autonomic body responses. These are the ones that keep us alive by quickly scanning the environment for danger and, when necessary, activating into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. When we are calm, that is to say, when our nervous system perceives the absence of physical or psychological danger, it is our vagus nerve that transmits information “upstairs” to our more highly evolved brain structures, like our prefrontal cortex. Engagement of our higher-order brain functions allows us to access our Yes Brain, or our innate compassion, curiosity, calmness, clarity, courage, connectedness, confidence, creativity, persistence, perseverance, and more.
Drinking water quite literally supports our brains and bodies to engage with the world as our best selves. Hydration is necessary for whole-brain integration, and when our physical, mental, and emotional states are in equilibrium, our brains are prepared for optimal learning experiences. A nervous system state of homeostasis and calm is necessary for growth, restoration, and learning at the cellular level. From the perspective of optimal child development, quality early childhood experiences that lead to positive brain development and support children to thrive involve our vagus nerve as the initial pathway into integration. Water, Water, it’s good to drink!
Integration from the Bottom Up
Our vagus nerve is like the mind-body superhighway that is critical to switching on, or integrating, all parts of our brain. The brain itself develops in utero from bottom-to-top, and so our intentional brain integration through movement also mirrors this sequence of bottom-to-top. We begin PACE with drinking water because it powers up the energy system of our electrical body, and activates the vagus nerve from the bottom up to actually create psychological comfort and a sense of safety.
Drinking water, therefore, is one of the simplest and most basic ways we can support optimal integration between our minds, bodies, and hearts. Water isn’t just necessary for good physical health, but it actually maximizes our brain functioning too.
Modeling Healthy Hydration in Early Childhood Education
As a guideline, aim for roughly half of your body weight in ounces of water per day. The average daily water loss through natural body processes is about 2.5 quarts through things like urination, respiration, and perspiration. We also have increased water needs through psychological or environmental stress, as well as extreme heat or exercise.
The best way to encourage children to drink water daily is to incorporate water into our daily routine, prioritize water as the primary and default beverage of choice, and for adults to model drinking water. While adults often drink other beverages in addition to water (i.e., coffee, tea, soda, sports drinks, etc.), it is critical that we also model drinking plain ole’ H-2-O.
Children will do as we do!
The Role of Frequent Potty Breaks in Early Childhood Education
One factor for proper hydration in both children and adults includes a bit of intentional planning around bathroom breaks because more water in = more water out! Quality early childhood experiences necessitate the expectation for frequent bathroom trips because children are encouraged to sip water all day long. Children may be discouraged from drinking water when frequent trips to the bathroom are inaccessible due to environmental factors, proximity, or support structures.
For early childhood educators, daily schedules and staffing demands aren’t always conducive to healthy hydration habits either, and many educators suffer from bladder and kidney challenges related to inadequate water intake. Quite literally, a staffing shortage in early childhood education isn’t just detrimental to children, communities, and families, but is also detrimental to the health of the entire early childhood workforce. We know that children thrive when adults around them are thriving, and this absolutely includes the opportunity to meet our most basic physical needs to both drink and eliminate water.
A Holistic Look at Water and Social Systems Around Water
As a provider of quality early childhood experiences that support whole-person development and integration, we seek to take a holistic approach and a wider perspective in looking at our relationship with water. Our daily rituals and habits around water at Treehouse Learning are intentional- we know via research, observations, and indigenous wisdom, that water is good for us- water is life. We recognize the immense privilege we hold with respect to our access and attitude towards water.
It is easy to take for granted here in Boulder County that we have access to clean and constant water any time we turn on the faucet. In fact, we have the privilege of multiple options for how we consume our drinking water- we can opt into water purifiers, water delivery services, water filters, water ionizers, etc. Despite living in a semi-arid climate prone to droughts and devastating fires, we often take for granted abundant water to maintain green landscapes and the fact that when we turn on the faucet, water comes out.
We focus, therefore, on our relationship with water both today as well as looking forward to our future. While we recognize that children are developmentally wired to want to play with water (because it is actually quite amazing, if you think about it, how you can both “grab” pouring water and simultaneously not grab water), we also must be intentional about how we model water conservation. Even when taking the time to wash and scrub our hands throughout the day, we can still demonstrate that water is precious and we don’t take it for granted.
Water Usage at Treehouse Learning
With respect to our outdoor spaces, our long-term landscape vision also includes water-focused projects to replace some of our grass spaces with more water-efficient and developmentally appropriate options for children’s outdoor play spaces. We’ll be creating rain gardens and intentionally harvesting water already flowing on and around our property, and ultimately, creating systems to store and reuse our grey water.
Colorado passed a law in 2022, Clean Water In Schools And Child Care Centers, to eliminate exposure to lead for young children in schools, centers, and home-care settings. Besides the fact that Treehouse Learning is required to be in compliance with this law, we are also fully invested in advocating for all children to have a chance to develop without the detrimental impact of lead exposure and continually assess opportunities to improve the quality of our drinking water. Again, we recognize the privileges we hold to live in a community with the infrastructure and financial investment necessary to prioritize clean water systems for drinking. This is not the case for the residents of Flint, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi, where lead-based water contamination disproportionately impacts communities of color!
Water, Water Policy, Infrastructure, and Social Justice
Finally, we recognize that water is deeply intertwined with land use, and that same government policies and systems of colonization that forcibly removed indigenous people from their ancestral homelands (in Boulder County, this was predominantly the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute people) also creates and perpetuates ongoing inequities in accessing clean water. Even today, roughly 40-50% of Diné (Navajo Nation) people lack access to electricity or clean water. For ongoing learners interested in water issues, we highly recommend Water Desk, a journalism initiative from the Center of Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder all about water issues, particularly this podcast about solving water insecurity on the Navajo Nation. For anyone who feels called to provide financial assistance out of our own abundance, here is an opportunity to support the Diné people.
While water issues are obviously complex and highly politicized issues that involve laws, policies, governments, large organizations, and corporations, water decisions made today will impact the lives of children far more and for far longer than the lives of most of the decision-makers. Here is a great opportunity for children to learn and get involved with water protection issues through Warrior Kids, an indigenous podcast for children.