Does the built environment contribute to children’s development?

The Offord Centre’s Canadian Neighbourhoods and Early Child Development (CanNECD) study attempts to determine the role neighbourhoods play in children’s development. In some Canadian neighbourhoods only 2% of children are struggling, while in others roughly 75% struggle. The CanNECD study focuses largely on the socioeconomic factors that contribute to this disparity.

However, other studies have looked at more specific characteristics of neighbourhoods to better understand what makes a neighbourhood help children’s development or hinder it. One such study from Australia examined the physical features of the neighbourhood built environment to see the role these played in children’s development.

Research Summary

  • There are links between a neighbourhood’s built form (e.g., yard space, traffic, proximity to parks) and development.
  • The effect of these links was small and socioeconomic factors had a larger effect on child development.

What is the research about?

Early childhood is a critical period for physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Individual, family, and environmental factors can all play a role in children’s development.

Somewhat overlooked, neighborhood characteristics are a strong predictor of future health in adults. However, research has yet to determine which neighborhood characteristics promote healthy child development.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers from the University of Western Australia linked Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data with geographic information, including:

  • Walkability: traffic exposure, number of streets, frequencies of public transport stops, etc.
  • Green Space: distance to parks, conservation areas, school playgrounds, etc.
  • Child Specific Destinations: proximity to kindergarten, childcare centres, etc.
  • Home outdoor Space: home yard area.

Neighbourhoods received a score based on these factors.

To take into account sociodemographic variation, the researchers looked at the percentage of households:

  • with 4 year olds that were female, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin
  • with one or more siblings
  • with at least one parent over 24 years old
  • single parent families
  • at least one parent educated beyond secondary school
  • gross family income less than $3000 AUD/biweekly
  • who had moved house in the last year

The researchers used the AEDC to measure three areas of children’s development:

  • Physical health and well-being
  • Social competence
  • Emotional maturity

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that among the 149 local communities, a median of 7.7%, 7.3% and 7.4% of children were developmentally vulnerable on physical health and well-being, social competence and emotional maturity domains, respectively.

Living in houses with the biggest yard space resulted in the lowest odds of poor emotional development. Odds of worse social competence was lower in neighbourhoods with less traffic. Surprisingly, the further a neighbourhood was to the nearest schools, child-care centres, and parks the lower the odds of poor development.

Residential density, distance to the nearest kindergarten, conservation area, or child health clinic were not linked with worse development.

Although the links between neighborhoods and development remained even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors, their effects were small. Socioeconomic factors had a larger effect on child development.

What does this research mean?

A neighbourhood’s socio-demographic makeup has a bigger impact on child development than its physical characteristics. However, although the effect of the built environment on early child development may appear small, even small effects could have significant population impact because of the lasting effects of the built environment over time. For example, research shows more green space in childhood is associated with a lower risk of mental health disorders.