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Nutrition and Physical Activity

Nutrition and Physical Activity Services and Their Link to School Readiness

A healthy diet and regular physical activity are essential to children's school readiness. Breast milk offers nutrients that support healthy brain development, and the physical action of breastfeeding helps mother and child bond. Holding infants as they are bottle fed and offering family style meals with nutritious foods support children's physical, social and emotional, and cognitive development. Many children in Head Start experience food insecurity and rely on the food that they receive through the program.

Head Start nutrition services support children's social and emotional, cognitive, and language development by creating a positive environment for children to:

  • Feed on demand
  • Offer individualized feeding experiences
  • Provide bottle and breast feeding support
  • Communicate with families regarding introduction of new foods and food allergies
  • Try new foods
  • Understand portion size
  • Take turns
  • Talk about what they are doing and learning

Children who take part in age-appropriate physical activity are more likely to stay healthy, focused, and engaged in learning. These opportunities help children to build spatial understanding and stronger muscles while learning basic cognitive skills like math, literacy, logic, and reasoning.

Improve the effectiveness of health services and support school readiness by:

Partnering with families to prevent food insecurity and providing information about Healthy Active Living for Families (HALF) to ensure children are well nourished and can engage in learning.

  • Connect families to federal, tribal, state, or local nutrition resources when needed
  • Provide an initial assessment of each child's nutritional needs, preferences, and requirements
  • Share information from ChooseMyPlate.gov; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)); and Healthy Active Living for Families (Healthy Active Living for Families (HALF)) about:
    • Breast- and bottle feeding
    • Individualized feeding
    • Introduction of new foods
    • Food allergies
    • Family-style meals
    • Food groups
    • Portion sizes
    • Meal plans
    • Ways to find and prepare healthy foods on a budget
    • Physical activity
    • Screen time

Helping families make informed decisions about breast and formula feeding during the early years.

  • Provide breastfeeding education to pregnant mothers and expectant families.
  • Make referrals to lactation consultants as appropriate.
  • Offer educational materials on infant nutrition.

Offering nutritious, culturally-appropriate meals that meet each child's needs and give them the energy needed to learn.

  • Provide meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) nutrition requirements.
  • Develop individual plans so that all children can participate in inclusive Head Start settings. This includes children with special dietary needs, including allergies or food intolerances, and other special health care needs.

Providing age-appropriate amounts of physical activity in children's daily routines to support positive behaviors and promote physical health.

Research Connections

Children who are well nourished have the energy to engage in learning. Children who experience malnutrition or failure to thrive may experience developmental delays.1 According to the 2013 Childhood Hunger in America Fact Sheet [PDF, 1.5MB], one in every five children in America is living in a household without access to adequate food. The National Institutes of Health report that, "Undernourished children under 3 years of age are less likely to learn as much, as fast, or as well as adequately nourished children."2 Yet, "breastfed babies score slightly higher on IQ tests, especially babies who were born pre-maturely."3 Nutrition provides children with the energy needed for optimal development.4 Routine physical activity impacts all developmental domains, particularly gross and fine motor development. Physical activity or "exercise may prove to be a simple, yet important, method of enhancing those aspects of children’s mental functioning central to cognitive development."5


1California Childcare Health Program. (2006). School readiness and health. San Francisco, CA: University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, Department of Family Health Care Nursing.

2Share Our Strength. (2013). Childhood Hunger in America. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from: http://www.nokidhungry.org/pdfs/Facts-on-Childhood-Hunger-in-America-2013-designed.pdf [PDF, 644KB]

3National Women's Health Information Center. (n.d.) The Comprehensive Benefits of Breastfeeding. Washington, DC: author. Available at: /nutrition/article/comprehensive-benefits-breastfeeding

4U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Why is physical activity important? Retrieved from http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers/physical-activity/why.html

5Tomporowski, P. D., Davis, C. L., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J.A. (2008). Exercise and children's intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement. Education Psychology Review. 20(2), 111.

Topic:School Readiness

Keywords:Physical activity

Resource Type: Article

National Centers: Early Childhood Health and Wellness

Last Updated: July 30, 2018