Success Stories

Washington State Infuses Healthy Eating and Physical Activity into Early Learning Standards

Early Care


The way Vic Colman sees it, health is in all places—everywhere we live, learn, work, and play—so it should be in all policymaking as well. Especially when it comes to kids.

With a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition, which Colman directs, worked for more than four years with the Washington State Department of Early Learning to update and align licensing requirements for family home and center-based early learning settings. The Coalition’s goal was to ensure the new standards prioritized children’s health. The Coalition’s hard work paid off; starting this summer, thanks to stronger requirements, those early learning providers will serve kids healthier meals, get them moving more, and limit their screen time.

The Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition is composed of 45 organizations in Washington working together to make the state a healthier place for children to grow up and thrive. The Coalition has prioritized early learning settings as critical places for children to attain and maintain healthy weights.  When children learn about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity from an early age, those habits can last a lifetime. And in Washington, where nearly 5,800 licensed early learning providers serve more than 166,000 children, that’s a lot of potential impact.


The Intersection of Early Learning and Health

“This is an example of bringing a health lens to a non-health sector,” said Colman. “Health issues aren’t at the forefront of what early learning people think about, but that’s changing.”

It’s all about education. “That’s the big battle we fight every day,” Colman said.

Changing social norms have helped too. Thanks in part to national and local efforts, from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to Seattle’s successful sugary drinks tax, early learning providers increasingly see the value of addressing health through their own work.

When the Department of Early Learning asked for public comment on its proposed alignment standards, the Coalition and its partners urged the Department to raise standards for nutrition, physical activity, and screen time, and offered the Department technical input showing exactly which proposed standards could be strengthened to meet national benchmarks.

“When we shared that with the director of licensing, she said we made a great case,” Colman said. “It helped the agency buy into our approach.”


Raising the Bar for Health

Adrienne Dorf, manager of the Healthiest Next Generation Program for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, said there’s also been a shift in how regulations are viewed.

“It used to be that regulations were called minimum health and safety standards,” she said. “They set a low bar, and when we urged them to raise the bar, we got pushback.”

That’s changed, thanks in part to advocacy work from the health community. Instead of merely accepting minimum standards, some regulatory agencies are doing more, including finding and adopting best practices and meeting national health and safety performance standards that improve child health.

In the end, the Department accepted most of the Coalition’s recommendations, including these significant requirements, which take effect Aug. 1, 2019:


  • One snack per day provided at an early learning program must include a fruit or vegetable. Flavored milk or sugar-sweetened beverages are prohibited, and water must be readily available.
  • There must be defined periods of time for moderate and vigorous physical activity, including time outdoors and a mix of activities.
  • Screen time for kids 2 years and older is limited to 2.5 hours per week and intentional screen time for kids under 2 is prohibited.
  • Breastfeeding mothers must be accommodated and supported.


Both Colman and Dorf said that early learning providers will need education and support to implement the new requirements properly. According to Dorf, online and in-person training will be available to providers, but that alone won’t do the job.

“Healthy food is more expensive and can take more time to prepare,” she noted. “We need to find ways to decrease costs for providers so that they can serve healthy food.”

For example, increasing enrollment in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food program could help fund purchase of healthier foods in early learning settings.

Colman believes the DEL is committed to making the new requirements work for everyone.

“This is a very impactful victory,” he said. “It will influence a lot of kids by setting new norms for how we can support health in early learning settings.”


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