The Five Pillars Of Wellbeing

Posted on: 23/02/2024

Health and wellbeing are of the utmost importance to us all. While it is absolutely normal for everyone to experience poor physical and/or mental health sometimes, generally keeping ourselves ‘well’ is most people’s goal. Parents often ask how they can best support their children’s academic and co-curricular endeavours, friendships and happiness. The answer is, focus on the five pillars of wellbeing, which are: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Purpose and Connections.

Pillar 1: Sleep

No child will be able to enjoy life to the full, maintain their emotional equilibrium or reach their potential if they are chronically sleep-deprived. Every child therefore needs a regular, appropriate sleep routine. The NHS guidelines on how much sleep children should have in each 24 hour period are:

Infants 4 to 12 months 12 to 16 hours including naps
Children 1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours including naps
Children 3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours including naps
Children 6 to 12 years 9 to 12 hours
Teenagers 13 to 18 years 8 to 10 hours

A child’s bedtime routine should start at a consistent time each day, around 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Screens and other distractions should be avoided during this time; the focus should be on bathing, brushing teeth, reading, practising mindful breathing or simply cuddling/chatting. When bedtime comes, there should be no electronic devices in a child’s bedroom to distract them from sleep. If a child does rouse after their bedtime, they should be re-settled as quickly as possible. With consistency, all children can adopt a healthy and enjoyable sleep routine.

Pillar 2: Nutrition

NHS research shows that children who stay a healthy weight are fitter, healthier, better able to learn and more self-confident. They are also less likely to have health problems in childhood and later life.

Children learn by example, so adults should model enjoying a balanced, healthy diet at regular mealtimes. We should all ‘eat a rainbow’ every day! When offering a balanced diet for children, adults may need to be patient. Children may need to try a certain food over and over again before they grow used to it. We can start off by serving children fairly small portions, giving more if they are still hungry after finishing.

Just like adults, children should eat at least five portions of fruit/vegetables every day (fresh, tinned, frozen or dried fruits and vegetables are fine, but fruit juice and smoothies should be limited to a combined total of 150ml per day as these contain so much sugar).

Starchy carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes should make up around a third of a child’s diet and wholemeal/wholegrain varieties are best. With potatoes, skins should be kept on whenever possible as these are a good source of fibre.

A child’s protein portion at each meal should be around the size of their palm. Meat, fish, pulses, beans and eggs are good sources of protein and the NHS recommends including one or two portions of oily fish per week and avoiding processed meats like sausages, bacon and ham. It is better to opt instead for lean meat or fish, limiting red meat.

Children should have some dairy (cheese, milk, yoghurts) or dairy alternatives (e.g. soya drinks and yoghurts) as these provide protein, calcium and some vitamins. Ideally, these should be whole/natural versions and it is best to avoid flavoured yoghurts or fromage frais packed full of sugar. 

When using oils/fats for cooking or in spreads, we should all choose unsaturated fats such as vegetable, rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils.

For everyone, high sugar items such as cakes, biscuits or ice creams should be a ‘once in a while’ treat.

The full NHS Eat Well guide is available here:

Pillar 3: Exercise

Regular exercise is essential for keeping bodies and minds fit and healthy. There are many distractions in the modern world which might encourage children to stay indoors: televisions, computers, tablets and other screens, exciting indoor toys. It is up to adults to schedule time in the great outdoors for younger children and to inspire children to be active. This might include going for walks, using play equipment at local parks, cycling, skipping, scooting, swimming, trampolining or taking part in organised sports. Many traditional childhood outdoor activities are free, such as climbing trees, catching falling leaves, collecting rocks, pebbles or twigs, going on a bug hunt or jumping in puddles!

Children will inevitably spend lots of time indoors too, and much of this can also be active. Rather than sitting still while staring at a screen, children could build indoor dens, do some cooking, try a bit of yoga or other stretching, or take part in active online games such as those based on sports or dancing. Tidying up, laying the table or helping to hang clothes on the line or put the laundry away are activities which inspire responsibility as well as movement! Gardening is good for the soul and it is never too early for children to learn how to plant, water and care for growing things.

When a child is tired, even worn out, by being active, they - and their adults - can really appreciate the still, quiet times. There is something special about curling up after an active day to read a book, watch television, listen to music, do puzzles or simply sit and focus on our breath. Being active will also support children in getting enough sleep, as a tired child is more likely to sleep soundly.

Pillar 4: Purpose

Children are physically and mentally supported by a good sleep routine, a balanced, healthy diet, and a good amount of activity. The two final pillars of wellbeing are purpose and connections. If sleep, diet and exercise are the ‘hows’ of our lives, purpose and connections are the ‘whys’. Giving a child purpose is not as daunting as it might sound; here are some tips.

Adults can help children to discover the joy of creativity with activities such as drawing, painting, learning to sing or play music, planting and nurturing a seed, building Lego structures or car/train tracks, making up stories or doing some cooking. Creating home-made items such as birthday cards and wrapping paper are a great starting point even for very young children.

We can also inspire children’s curiosity, the basis for their lifelong learning, by talking with them about the world around them. For children, everything is a question. Why is the sky blue? What’s that girl doing? What makes the bubbles in water? Why do bees buzz? Adults might help children to uncover the answers for themselves, or perhaps join them on the journey of discovery! A curious child is likely to enjoy their educational journey and enjoying something is likely to make us do well at it.

Children should be encouraged to find inspiration and wonder all around them. From the beauty of blossom to the enormity of elephants, from how sand feels between toes to the smell of freshly cut grass, there is always something to notice and appreciate. Adults should help children to recognise the beauty and wonder in the world, such as the new shoots in spring or the beauty of freshly-fallen snow, so that children may develop a sense of the wider world and of spirituality, awe and faith.

Pillar 5: Connections

This should, perhaps, be Pillar 1, because with strong and healthy connections, everything else becomes easier. Connections are relationships and our earliest relationships form the blueprint for healthy relationships throughout the rest of our lives.

Relationships are not perfect all of the time, and we should not expect them to be. We should aim not to be perfect, but to be ‘good enough’. Healthy relationships are formed and enhanced by showing kindness, respect and patience, by listening attentively and communicating clearly. It is also important to set and maintain the right boundaries for both participants’ wellbeing. Between adults and children a crucial boundary is this one: ‘I am the adult, you are the child. I have knowledge and experience that you do not yet have. So, while I will listen to you with respect and kindness, I may not be able to grant your every wish.’

Helping a child with building their five pillars of wellbeing is not always an easy job. Often adults must spend time explaining the reasons for their decisions or justifying the boundaries they set. The good news is that if we can consistently ensure that children get the right amount of sleep, good nutrition, enough exercise, a sense of purpose and healthy connections, we will be enhancing their mental and physical wellbeing not just during their childhood but for their entire life. Which is, perhaps, the best gift of all.