A Guide to Place Matters

A Guide to Place Matters

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

Suggested citation: National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2023). Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development Working Paper No. 16. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/.

Working Paper 16

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

The environment we create shapes the foundations of healthy development. The built environment, including the physical and social aspects of our surroundings, plays a critical role in shaping our experiences and opportunities. Children who grow up in safe, supportive, and stimulating environments are more likely to thrive.

Related Resources

Place Matters: What Surrounds Us Shapes Us

Every environment is infused with a combination of influences, which can have positive and negative impacts on health and development. The infographic illustrates how the influences from a child’s social, built, and natural environments—as well as the systemic factors that shape those environments—interact with each other to shape early childhood development and lifelong health.

Policymaker Perspectives: Q&A with Bill de Blasio

As part of an upcoming series from the Center that will feature perspectives on early childhood policy from a range of contributors, we sat down with Bill de Blasio, who served as mayor of New York City, to discuss his work in early childhood education, current challenges and opportunities in the field, as well as how policies across a variety of domains—from green space to housing security—can be implemented to have a positive impact on children and families.

Moving Upstream: Confronting Racism to Open Up Children’s Potential

The scientific evidence is clear and growing: racism imposes unique and substantial stressors on the daily lives of families raising young children of color.

How Racism Can Affect Child Development

Racism & ECD thumbnail image

Research suggests that constant coping with systemic racism and everyday discrimination is a potent activator of the stress response. This may help us understand the early origins of racial disparities in chronic illness across the lifespan.

Connecting the Brain to the Rest of the Body: Early Childhood Development and Lifelong Health Are Deeply Intertwined

Cover image of working paper 15,

The rapidly advancing frontiers of 21st-century biological sciences now provide compelling evidence that the foundations of lifelong health are built early, with increasing evidence of the importance of the prenatal period and first few years after birth.

Re-Envisioning Early Childhood Policy and Practice in a World of Striking Inequality and Uncertainty

Advances in the biological sciences now underscore three concepts that, together with the original core story of development, offer a broader framework for science-informed investment in a post-pandemic world.

For the Community, with the Community, by the Community


Written by the Center’s first Writer in Residence, this piece explores one example of how community-informed, place-based strategies can have a positive impact on young children and their caregivers, increasing the positive influences from the broader environment that surrounds them. To learn more about why Place Matters for early childhood development, read our latest working paper here.

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