Child Health

Children need nutritious food, enough sleep, exercise, safety and nurturing to be healthy.  Healthy habits started in childhood can establish lifelong healthy behavior patterns.  Good health is connected to academic success of students.  Schools play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people.  Healthy students have improved cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.  Children represent the future, places where they live, learn and play should ensure their healthy growth and development.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regular physical activity in childhood and adolescent improves strength and endurance.  It helps build healthy bones and muscles and control weight.  Physical activity can also reduce anxiety and stress while boosting self-esteem.  It may even improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Children should get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

photo of children learning about asthma

Why is the built environment important?

The way our communities are designed, built and maintained affects the health of everyone, particularly children and adolescents.  As children are developing physically, mentally and socially it is important their communities support opportunities for physical activity, mental engagement and socialization.  Children and young people benefit from sidewalks, bikeways, playgrounds, parks and open spaces.  Children are seldom contacted by planners or elected officials to get their input on development.  When asked, about half of kids say they do not have enough things to do or places to go in their neighborhoods.  Children and parents alike want places that are fun, safe and accessible.  Well-designed communities can benefit the health and well-being of children, especially when childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma and attention deficit disorder are common.

Why is physical activity important for children?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regular physical activity in childhood and adolescent improves strength and endurance.  It helps build healthy bones and muscles and control weight.  Physical activity can also reduce anxiety and stress while boosting self-esteem.  It may even improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  According to the U.S. Surgeon General, children should get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.  Physical activity has many learning benefits for children such as:

Brain function – physical activity can increase concentration and attentiveness in the classroom

Wellness – physical activity can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and promotes physiological wellbeing

Body weight – physical activity burns calories, which together with a balanced diet, helps to maintain a healthy body weight

Socialization – physical activity provides opportunities to learn social cues and develop interpersonal relationships


What is the Gold Sneaker Initiative?

The Gold Sneaker Initiative was developed to enhance policy related to health and wellness within licensed child care facilities across Tennessee.  Gold Sneaker is a voluntary program consisting of 9 policies which deal with physical activity, nutrition and a tobacco-free campus.  Child care facilities completing the training and implementing the healthier policies receive the “Gold Sneaker” designation. Visit the Department of Health’s Gold Sneaker webpage for more details.

How can schools promote built environment?

The health of students has been linked to academic success.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) schools play a critical role in improving the dietary and physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents.  Healthy Schools support healthy eating and regular physical activity which can prevent obesity and chronic diseases.  Healthy Schools help children and adolescents establish healthy lifestyle behavior patterns that carry into adulthood.  Visit our Healthy Schools webpage for more information.

Schools built a long distance from where families live require children to be driven to school depriving them of an opportunity for physical activity, contributing to air pollution, and increasing the risk for automobile crashes.  When safe routes to school are available within walking or biking distance of where people live children can make walking or biking a part of their daily lives, establishing healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

The places where children learn should also be safe from pollution.  Chemical hazards are often more serious threats for children.  Children are more likely to suffer from adverse health effects due to environmental exposure than adults.  Therefore, the location of schools, day cares, and other child care sites should be assessed for past industrial uses and nearby environmental emissions. 

What about accessibility for children?

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 20% of American children have some sort of disability.  These children may have special physical, mental or social needs.  It is important to design communities that accommodate children with special needs, allowing them to play, explore and be inspired.

What about childhood asthma?

Asthma is one of the most common chronic childhood diseases.  Controlling asthma triggers such as environmental tobacco smoke, allergens, and particulate matter can reduce the burden of asthma.  Some asthma triggers can be lessened in the built environment.  For example, moving people with mass transit lowers automobile emissions which can trigger asthma.  Easing traffic congestion to reduce idling engines is another way to reduce particulate matter and ground-level ozone, both asthma triggers.  The Department of Health has an Asthma Management Initiative which can help develop local asthma resources and lower the risk of asthma attacks to children in your community.

Is lead-based paint still a risk?

Yes, lead poisoning is still a risk in homes built before 1978, especially in homes with poor maintenance or structural deficiencies.  Lead poisoning causes a range of health problems depending on the amount and duration of exposure.  Lead exposure in children has been linked to learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, poor academic performance and other adverse health conditions.  Children living in low-income or rental housing are more likely to be in substandard housing.  Local governments can have codes or zoning policies to ensure homes are properly maintained to reduce health risks.  If a child lives where there may be lead poisoning risks, the can easily have their blood tested at the doctor’s office or health clinic.  To help parents protect their children, the Department of Health performs prevention activities and case management through our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (TCLPPP).

What can communities do?

Collaborative efforts between schools, government, organizations, and the communities often have the most impact on young people.  Communities can benefits children’s health by planning, planning, developing and preserving spaces for children and adolescents to engage physically, mentally, and socially, such as:

  • playgrounds
  • sidewalks
  • bikeways
  • hiking trails
  • parks
  • nature centers
  • open spaces
  • farmers markets
  • Healthier TN
photograph of playground and picnic area at the Smyrna Public Library

At the same place as the public library, the Town of Smyrna in Rutherford County provides their residents a walking track, swing set, playgrounds, picnic tables, pavilion and green space.

How can communities support breastfeeding?

Feeding natural mother’s milk provides health benefits to mother and baby.  According to CDC’s website a woman's ability to initiate and sustain breastfeeding is influenced by a host of factors, including the community in which she lives.  A woman's community has many components, such as public health and other community-based programs, coalitions and organizations, schools and child care centers, businesses and industry, and the media.  The extent to which each of these entities supports or discourages breastfeeding can be crucial to a success in breastfeeding.  The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding has a helpful factsheet about How Communities Can Help support mothers who want to breastfeed.

Why should children interact with nature?

Exploring nature increases physical activity which benefits health.  Interaction with nature has shown positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing.  Sometimes, when children spend too much time indoors, they miss out on playing outside and getting dirty.  Being exposed to dirt which contains microbes and allergens can build a child’s natural immunity.  Nature provides children with opportunities experiential learning.  Children enjoy visiting parks and nature centers.  Hiking, birdwatching, canoeing, hunting, fishing and exploring all enjoy children to enjoy the natural beauty and increase physical activity.  The Tennessee Environmental Education Association promotes public understanding and support of environmental education programs and activities.  Check out their website for resources for teachers and students.  Don’t forget, Tennessee State Parks are free and offer opportunities for “Fun and Adventure, Naturally.” 

What is the Department of Education doing?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) has several initiatives aimed at increasing child health and academic performance.  The Active Students, Active Learners initiative is a partnership between TDOE and TDH about physical activity and academic performance.  TDOE's Coordinated School Health program promotes healthy schools by connecting physical, emotional and social health with education.  More TDOE resources can be found on their Healthy and Safety webpage.

Government partners

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Children’s Health & the Built Environment
FastStats – Child Health

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Protecting Children’s Environmental Health

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH)
Kids’ Pages

U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM)
MedlinePlus – Children’s Health

Tennessee Department of Education 
Coordinated School Health

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
Healthy Parks Healthy Person

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

kidcentral tn

Additional resources  

National Association of County and City Health Officials
Resources for Children’s Health and the Built Environment

Tennessee Environmental Education Association
Resources for Children’s Health and the Built Environment

Active Academics
Resources to Encourage Activity in the Classroom

ChangeLab Solutions
Webinar: Healthy Children & Families

Helpful documents

Built Environment Children’s Health, 2006