His death was announced by Yale University, where he was a longtime professor. The cause was not disclosed.
Dr. Zigler grew up in poverty as the child of immigrants and drew on those experiences in developing ideas for improving the lot of children, parents and schools.
He was a major scholar in the field of childhood psychology, publishing more than 800 papers and dozens of books, and advocated the concept of the “whole child.” He believed that social development was as crucial to a child’s well-being as academic achievement and sought to foster that notion with programs, the best known being Head Start.
He was among several social scientists and public policy experts, including Bettye Caldwell, Robert Cooke and Jule Sugarman, who designed the framework for Head Start, which was launched in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
It began as a summer program for preschool children, and after two years, it was expanded to serve families year-round. In 1970, under President Richard M. Nixon, Dr. Zigler became the first full-time director of the Office of Child Development, which then administered the Head Start program.
“I don’t think we have had the kind of advocacy for children that they deserve to get,” he said at the time. “I intend to be an outspoken advocate for children. We can do better by our children than we have been doing.”
Working with Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), Dr. Zigler helped draft the Child Development Act of 1971, which was passed by both houses of Congress.
The bill, which would have provided child care for working mothers and poor families, was vetoed by Nixon after an outcry from conservative opponents.
“They didn’t want women to work,” Dr. Zigler said in 1989. “They said we were Sovietizing America’s children, that children would be raised in centers rather than by their mothers.”
Dr. Zigler soon resigned from the government and returned to Yale, where he taught psychology and directed a center for the study of childhood development.
Head Start also faced similar criticism, was condemned as a Communist plot to take children away from their families and was for years threatened with a loss of funding. Dr. Zigler often pointed out that the program was voluntary and was administered — with varying degrees of success — by local communities.
“In our nation today children and families all too often come last, and the social barriers to providing a better quality of life for our nation’s children have become almost insurmountable,” he wrote in a 1976 New York Times essay. “Too many Americans either will not or do not want to hear the well-documented facts concerning our nation’s massive shortcomings in regard to children.”
Dr. Zigler developed performance standards for measuring the effectiveness of Head Start, and independent studies have generally found that the program has had beneficial effects on children, making them more productive in school and less likely to become burdens on society. More than 35 million have gone through Head Start programs, which now serves more than 1 million children each year.
Edward Frank Zigler was born March 1, 1930, in Kansas City, Mo. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who earned a meager living selling produce and plucking and selling chickens.
By the time he was 8, Dr. Zigler was selling fruit and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. His family received support from a “settlement house,” an institution once common in cities that helped immigrant families with social and medical needs, English-language skills and acculturation into American life.
Years later, Dr. Zigler used the settlement house as a model for Head Start and other programs for children and families.
“It was predicated on what he remembered of how he was treated as a child of immigrants,” Walter Gilliam, a Yale colleague, said Saturday in an interview.
After military service during the Korean War, Dr. Zigler graduated in 1954 from what is now the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He received a doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1958, then joined the Yale faculty a year later.
In the mid-1970s, Dr. Zigler helped coordinate the resettlement of 3,000 Vietnamese children — many of them the offspring of U.S. military personnel — in the United States.
Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Zigler promoted what he called “the school of the 21st century.” Especially with more women entering the workforce and the rise of single-parent households, he called for schools to act as neighborhood social service centers providing day care, medical services and recreation, as well as academic training.
“I want a solution that’s going to last for the next 100 years and provide quality day care for everyone,” he told The Washington Post in 1987. “We have to open schools earlier in the morning, keep them open later in the afternoon and during summer.”
Today, more than 1,400 schools in at least 20 states are following Dr. Zigler’s blueprint by offering an array of social services.
“He said if there was ever anything that should unite us, it should be how we care for our children,” said Gilliam, who now directs the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale. “He felt that any society that is going to survive needs to invest in its children.”
Dr. Zigler’s wife of 61 years, the former Bernice Gorelick, died in 2017. Survivors include a son, Perrin Scott Zigler of East Bridgewater, Mass.; a sister; and two granddaughters.
Dr. Zigler, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, believed Americans should united by the cause of children.
“I remember when I was in Washington they kept trying to get me to say whether I was a Republican or a Democrat,” he told the Progressive magazine in 2002. “I just said, my politics are children. That’s all I know anything about.”