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USDA Childcare Outdoor Learning Environments as Active Food Systems (COLEAFS)

Authors: Nilda Graciela Cosco, Nancy M. Wells, Muntazar Monsur, Lora Suzanne Goodell, Daowen Zhang, Tong Xu, Derek Hales, and Robin Clive Moore.

Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior Annual Conference Poster

The aim of the Childcare Outdoor Learning Environments as Active Food Systems (COLEAFS) project is to measure the effectiveness of gardening to support fruit and vegetable identification, liking, and consumption and to increase physical activity in preschool children attending childcare. Funded by USDA NIFA, the project integrates research, education, and extension components. Details of the research design were recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Recent Article:

Research Design, Protocol, and Participant Characteristics of COLEAFS: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial of a Childcare Garden Intervention


Childcare garden interventions may be an effective strategy to increase fruit and vegetable (FV) consumption and physical activity among young children. The objective of this paper is to describe the research design, protocol, outcome measures, and baseline characteristics of participants in the Childcare Outdoor Learning Environments as Active Food Systems (“COLEAFS”) study, a cluster randomized controlled trial (RCT) examining the effect of a garden intervention on outcomes related to diet and physical activity. Fifteen childcare centers in low-income areas were randomly assigned to intervention (to receive garden intervention in Year 1), waitlist control (to receive garden intervention in Year 2), and control group (no intervention). The garden intervention comprised six raised beds planted with warm-season vegetables and fruits, and a garden activity booklet presenting 12 gardening activities. FV knowledge and FV liking were measured using a tablet-enabled protocol. FV consumption was measured by weighing FV before and after a snack session. Physical activity was measured using Actigraph GT3x+ worn by children for three consecutive days while at the childcare center. Of the 543 eligible children from the 15 childcare centers, 250 children aged 3–5 years received parental consent, assented, and participated in baseline data collection. By employing an RCT to examine the effect of a garden intervention on diet and physical activity among young children attending childcare centers within low-income communities, this study offers compelling research design and methods, addresses a critical gap in the empirical literature, and is a step toward evidence-based regulations to promote early childhood healthy habits.

Lead Team Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University

  • Nilda G. Cosco,  PhD, Director of Programs, Principal Investigator
  • Robin C. Moore, MCP, Hon.ASLA, Department of Landscape Architecture, Director, Co-PI
  • Muntazar Monsur, PhD, Post Doc Scholar, Study Coordinator

Content Experts

  • Lora S. Goodell, PhD; Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences; NC State University
  • Lucy Bradley, PhD, Horticultural Science, NC State University
  • Dara Bloom, PhD, Agriculture and Life Sciences, NC State University
  • Ronda Hawkins, Early Childhood Professor, Sandhills Community College
  • Carol Orji, Early Childhood Initiatives Manager, Wake Co. Smart Start, NC
  • Nancy Wells, PhD, Professor, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University
  • Daowen, Zhang, PhD, Statistics, NC State University
  • Derek Hales, PhD, Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, UNC-CH

Research Assistants

  • Laura Lloyd, BS, Professional Development Program Associate
  • Bria Sledge, MA, Early Childhood Program Assistant
  • Zhuowei Li, MHS, Design Assistant


  1. Influence childcare regulations to include hands-on fruit and vegetable (FV) gardening as a health promotion strategy (policy and QRIS systems).
  2. Increase awareness and understanding of early childhood physical activity and healthy eating through hands-on FV gardening.
  3. Increase the consumption of fresh FV by preschoolers.


Research Function

  1. Assess the impact of a Gardening Component on 4-5 year olds, enrolled in 15 childcare centers in Wake Co, NC.
  2. Using a waitlist/control group, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) research design, assess the impact of gardening on children’s physical activity, FV liking, FV knowledge, and consumption.

Education and Extension Functions

  1. Research findings translation