Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development

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A wide range of conditions in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn can get “under the skin” and affect their developing brains and other biological systems. Rapidly advancing science around early childhood development provides increasingly clear evidence that, beginning before birth, these environmental conditions shape how children develop, which shapes their lifelong physical and mental health, in turn.

Building upon the science presented in Working Paper 15: Early Childhood Development and Lifelong Health Are Deeply Intertwined, this Working Paper examines how the built and natural environments—and the systemic factors that shape those environments—interact with each other and with a child’s social environment in deeply interconnected ways. It explains in clear language how these environmental influences shape development and lifelong health, while also highlighting the role that current and historic public policies have played, along with systemic racism, in creating a landscape where levels of exposure to risk and access to opportunity are not distributed equally.

The paper encourages us to think beyond the traditional early childhood sector in policy and practice. It explores how the latest science, combined with the lived expertise of communities and fresh thinking across an array of policy domains, offers promising opportunities for re-shaping environmental influences so that all children can grow up in homes and neighborhoods free of hazards and rich with opportunity. Sections include:

  • The physical environments where children live affect their development and health
  • The conditions of a place can have positive or negative influences on child health and development
  • Environmental exposures 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
  • Implications for new directions in policy

This paper is available for download from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

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