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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7
Research Alert

Why Physical “Space” Matters

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    Equity
    Photo of a young boy smiling while running down a sidewalk
    Credit: Mario Arango / iStock
      Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explored how children's environments shape their health and development, including their brains. Their physical environment includes the: (1) natural environment (factors such as air and water quality and climate-change effects like hurricanes), and (2) built environment (such as housing conditions; neighborhood density; infrastructure upkeep; crime rates; and access to food, transportation, and schools).
      Researchers found these factors impact children's biological systems and physical and mental health, even before they're born. A healthy environment is associated with healthy development, while an environment with negative factors causes obstacles. For example, regular access to green space in childhood is tied to lower obesity rates and fewer brain development issues like problems with attention.
      Historic and current social policies rooted in systemic racism have caused differences in children's geography—affecting access to resources and exposure to harmful elements. The authors cite the 2020 Childhood Opportunity Index from Brandeis University, which scores a neighborhood's health on a scale from 1 to 100 based on data from 72,000 U.S. census areas: The average score for white children is 73; for Latinx children, 33; and for Black children, 24. These racial disparities are specific to place, which has been shaped by people—such as by discriminatory zoning and real-estate practices that segregate neighborhoods and contribute to poverty.
      The good news, the authors say, is that people have the power to change these spaces. Environmental inequities should push communities to consider policies that improve space wellness in early childhood, including in urban planning, environmental protection, high-quality education, and anti-discrimination policies.
      References

      National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2023). Place matters: The environment we create shapes the foundations of healthy development: Working Paper No. 16. Harvard University.

      Kate Stoltzfus is a freelance editor and writer for ASCD.

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