Making sure kids in childcare and nursery school have plenty of water is a simple matter, right? It should be — water is free and plentiful — but it turns out water is often not easy for preschoolers to come by.

A recent review of how well childcare centers follow existing water regulations and policies found that water isn't made as available in childcare centers as it is supposed to be.

Helping kids develop a water-drinking habit at an early age is one way to put a dent in kids' caloric intake and could help reduce childhood obesity. When kids reach for water instead of high-calorie beverages, they make a healthy choice almost before they know what healthy choices are.

When kids are not offered water at mealtime, its importance as a beverage choice is diminished, and the opportunity to establish drinking non-caloric beverages as normal is lost.

Water availability at meals and during the day is required in schools and childcare centers that participate in federal food programs through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) which provides meal and snack reimbursement for over three million preschoolers every day. Because it reaches a large, nutritionally vulnerable population, its nutrition-related policies and regulations have the opportunity to significantly impact the health of children.

When researchers with the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity observed both water availability and teacher promotion of water intake in 40 childcare centers in Connecticut participating in CACFP, the results were not very encouraging.

They found many childcare centers violated policies meant to promote water intake. There was no water available in 16 percent of centers either in the classroom or during physical activity. While water was available in the majority of classrooms, a child had to ask an adult for water in over half of those classrooms. In other words, the water was not freely available.

One reason why water is not as freely available as it should be is that water and kids can be a recipe for accidents — of several varieties — that all spell extra work for childcare workers.

When water was available in the outdoor play area, teachers and staff were more likely to encourage children to drink water during physical activity, but it was only available in about one-third of the centers' physical activity periods. Teachers and staff rarely encouraged children to drink water, and staff members modeled water consumption in front of the children in only half of the centers.

More seriously, children were not offered water during any of the lunch periods researchers observed except when a child had a dietary restriction and could not drink milk. The childcare centers' wellness policies and staff handbooks of rarely included a policy on water availability, and researchers deemed the policies that were in place weak.

When kids are not offered water at mealtime, its importance as a beverage choice is diminished, and the opportunity to establish drinking non-caloric beverages as normal is lost. The authors recommend that once children have consumed their allotted milk serving, water should be made available as a thirst-quencher.

The 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act includes new water requirements, and the authors of the study support policy change as one approach to improving healthy beverage practices in childcare centers and to support existing policies. Healthy beverage policies at childcare centers could translate into positive changes in homes where 55 to 70 percent of caloric beverages are consumed.

The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.