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March 2024Vol. 25, No. 2The Impact of a Child's Physical Environment on Their Development and Well-Being

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child released a working paper exploring the impact of a child’s physical environment on their development and health. Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development examines how the many conditions in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn affect their development and biological systems—with impacts potentially leading into adulthood.

The paper examines how a person’s various environments—built, natural, social, and systemic—interact and influence development and health. Published in March of 2023, the paper builds on the science presented in a prior working paper on how early childhood development is intertwined with lifelong health.

In addition to presenting research on the relationship between a child's physical environment and development, the paper examines how public policy and systemic racism create inequitable access to opportunities. It presents strategies for reimagining and reshaping these environmental influences to make opportunities more accessible and equitable.

The paper addresses the following topics and findings:

  • The conditions of a place can have positive or negative influences on child health and development.
  • Environmental exposure early in life can cause lasting changes in developing biological systems.
  • Racism influences multiple dimensions of the natural and built environments that affect the foundations of child development and lifelong well-being.
  • The timing of environmental experiences and exposures can influence both short- and long-term effects.
  • Individuals respond differently to the physical environment, but there are clear patterns of risk that can inform universal action.

The authors also present implications for new directions in policy, with a focus on the following:

  • Strengthening community assets that support healthy development
  • Preventing, reducing, or mitigating environmental conditions that threaten human well-being
  • Understanding how both assets and threats are built into the body, beginning prenatally and in the early childhood period

Access the paper on the Center on the Developing Child website.

Related item: In the Training and Conferences section of this issue, we highlight the related recorded webinar “Understanding Racism’s Impact on Child Development: Working Toward Fairness of Place in the United States.”