Child care centers are the perfect place to help kids get off to a healthy start.

And they’re perfect for creative ways to do that, like serving healthy fruit kabobs during school celebrations, hosting a bike parade for kids and their families, serving meals family style and using gardens as teaching tools.

Those are just a few of the ideas that drew national recognition for a half dozen schools participating in Healthy Way to Grow, a program helping kids from birth to 5 years old get off to a healthy start. The program, created by the American Heart Association and Nemours, a national children’s health system, celebrated its one-year anniversary Tuesday. The program is funded through a five-year commitment by the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund.

“These centers exemplify how you can incorporate nutrition and physical activity into the center’s environment to support their overall learning goals,” said Jennifer Weber, director of Healthy Way to Grow for the American Heart Association.

The child care centers received “Bronze” recognition from Healthy Way to Grow for improving nutrition and physical activity, and limiting screen time. Two of the schools also were recognized for educating parents about healthy infant feeding habits.

The centers recognized Tuesday are:

  • Day Nursery in Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • The Child Garden in Reno, Nevada
  • Global Village International Preschool in Aurora, Colorado
  • Laredo Child Development Center in Aurora, Colorado
  • Maplewood YMCA in Rochester, New York
  • Munchkinland Preschool in Reno, Nevada

Healthy Way to Grow helps child care centers create healthier environments by providing direct, hands-on assistance, customized training, resources and tools at no cost. More than 115 child care centers in six communities have joined the program since it began in October 2013.

JoAnn Stibrich, director of the Early Childhood Education Center at Mount Olive Lutheran in Aurora, Colorado, said Healthy Way to Grow taught her to change what they serve kids at her school.

“What I loved the most is that that it taught me the difference between snack and treats,” Stribrich said. “I no longer serve treats at my school; we are serving healthy, nutritious snacks. We’re introducing the kids to a lot of new things and it’s gotten me excited to feed them.”

Child care centers are making birthday celebrations and other special events healthier. Some have a monthly birthday celebration for all the kids; others have de-emphasized food and allow the birthday child to be the helper for the day or choose a book for the class to read.

“At our Easter Party we asked for some treats but also encouraged parents to bring fruit to put on the plates,” said Beckie Schaffer, director of education, Little People Day Care School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “One of our parents bought green and purple grapes. She also said, ‘I didn’t know my daughter liked grapes till she ate them last night as I was washing them to put in the bag.’”

Many of the centers now offer fruits and vegetables as snacks, allowing children to try new foods, Schaffer said.

Nearly a quarter of U.S. preschoolers ages 2-5 are overweight or obese, and many attend childcare centers. Healthy Way to Grow can help lower younger kids’ lifelong risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.

Many child care centers want nutritious foods and more active kids, but they need a little help and support so they can make changes, Weber said.  Healthy Way to Grow helps with such changes, Weber said.

“This is a collaborative effort,” she said. “We’re an extra resource for centers.”

Weber said changing the way meals are served — from individual plates to family style — may require adjustments to food preparation or staffing. Young children also have to learn to serve themselves and practice their skills.