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Creating a Culture of Wellness in Preschools

| Colorado


Since 2012, the Culture of Wellness in Preschools (COWP) has worked to prevent early childhood obesity in Colorado.  The program has reached over 22,000 children and their families in 140 low-income preschools across 12 counties in Colorado. 

Because of COWP, preschool children, their parents, and their teachers eat more fruits and vegetables and participate in more physical activity in the classroom and at home.

preschoolers and a teacher sharing a meal around a table


Obesity is a growing epidemic across the United States and is linked with increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. In Colorado, 1 in nearly 6 adults are overweight or obese. 1 in 4 preschool children are overweight or obese. Overweight or obese 5-year olds are 5 times more likely to be obese as adults. Early childhood is a key time to prevent childhood obesity. Eating more fruits and vegetables and increasing physical activity are 2 important steps toward creating a healthier lifestyle.


The COWP Program focuses on improving healthy eating and physical activity behaviors in low-income preschool children, their parents and their teachers.  It combines policy, systems and environmental (PSE) policy changes with education programs to create a culture of wellness in preschools. The program has 5 key components:

  1. in-class nutrition education,

  2. outdoor physical activity,

  3. parent wellness workshops,

  4. staff workplace wellness program; and

  5. planning process for PSE changes.

The program has made 619 evidence-based PSE changes focused on increasing healthy eating and physical activity. These changes have been made in 102 preschool sites (an average of 6 changes per preschool). These changes affect children, parents, and staff.

Preschool teachers teach 9 hands-on lessons each school year. Children practice cutting, mixing, and serving skills, and taste test many different fruits and vegetables. The COWP outdoor physical activity program provides portable play equipment, music, and creative resources to encourage teachers and students to do moderate to vigorous physical activity on the playground. COWP also sponsors a 6-week Parent Wellness Workshops. Parents complete a 10-question survey on an iPad about their nutrition and physical activity behaviors and the behaviors of their preschool children. Answers to these questions result in a customized Family Health Summary, which serves as the basis of the workshop series.

Most frequently selected physical activity changes include:

  • music and movement activities occur daily,

  • at least 2 teacher-led physical activities daily

  • a variety of portable play equipment is available to students at all times.

A preschooler jumping and playing with a hulahoop.

Most Frequently selected healthy eating changes:

  • water is readily available during all indoor and outdoor environments,

  • special occasions like birthdays are celebrated with healthy foods or non-food activities,

  • nutrition education and cooking activities happen at least once a month

  • the preschool’s Wellness Policy Poster is displayed in every classroom.

A staff member holding a wellness policy poster.


  • 88% of teachers involve their preschool children in food preparation

  • 82% of teachers report their preschool children are more willing to select fruits and vegetables at snack and meal times.

  • 10% increase in children’s physical activity from the beginning to the end of the school year.

  • 88% of teachers are more likely to use portable play equipment with their preschool students during outdoor playtime

  • 88% of teachers are more likely to participate in physical activities with their students.

  • 84% of teachers are more physically active at work.

  • 93% of parents have made one or more positive behavior changes around healthy eating and physical activity.

preschool parents sharing a healthy recipe

Sustaining Success

COWP continues to look for opportunities to expand into underserved communities in Colorado. Over 87% of teachers report they would like to continue participating in the COWP Program. After one year of programming, approximately 68% of PSE changes are fully implemented and this increases to 77% after two years of programming.

This program is funded by the USDA SNAP-Ed program.

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