Creating environments to support young children’s development

Content type
Short article

June 2021


Early childhood is recognised as a critical time for improving the development and wellbeing of children through to their later life.1 Research shows that many societal outcomes in adulthood (e.g. physical and mental health, criminality and educational outcomes) are rooted in early childhood experiences. This provides a strong argument for investing in this period of childhood.2,3 Local government plays an important role in designing local physical environments to support early childhood development.4,5 This short article provides the best available evidence of the physical environmental factors that affect early childhood development. This can support local governments in their role in influencing urban design.

What physical environmental factors affect early childhood development?

There are varying types and quality of evidence on how physical environments affect early childhood development; from strong evidence such as systematic reviews to single studies and case studies. Current best available evidence suggests a number of physical environmental factors that influence early childhood development. In this short article, early childhood and young children are defined as under eight years of age in accordance with international standards.3

The built environment

A large Australian evidence review suggests environmental toxins (e.g. traffic-related fine particles) have detrimental effects on neurological development in young children.1 Infants and young children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins than in later years and even low levels of exposure can have significant effects on their neurological development.1

Reducing local traffic exposure provides a safer and more accessible environment for children to move around independently.11,12 This promotes opportunities for play, spontaneous social interactions and active modes of transport, which can positively influence early childhood development. Child-relevant destinations (e.g. health and social services, kindergartens and schools) close to home are considered to be beneficial to early childhood development for similar reasons.12,13 However, more research is required on the relationship between built-environmental features and childhood development.1

Nature and open public spaces

Several systematic reviews have identified a positive relationship between green spaces and early childhood development, especially physical and mental wellbeing.4,6,7,8,9 Greater access to, or quantity of, nature and public open spaces (such as playgrounds, school grounds, club/pay facilities) can support early childhood development. Nature and public open spaces provide opportunities for creative and adventurous play, social interaction and physical activity.4,10 This may be even more important for children in lower socio-economic backgrounds, as more privileged children often have access to backyards that provide similar benefits.4,11

Climate and the physical environment

Warmer temperatures and extreme heat have been associated with poor childhood developmental outcomes.14 Young children are more vulnerable to changes in the climate due to their dependence on others to move to a warmer/cooler location, put on a coat or drink water.15 Emerging research suggests the impact of climate change and weather extremities on children’s development should not be overlooked, especially with the increasing health effects of climate change.16 Parks and nature spaces are proven to provide a cooler space during warmer weather, and street tree canopies can provide cooling for pedestrians.17

Participation in urban planning

Case studies on urban planning for children emphasise the importance of including children and families in this planning; a strategy that has been promoted by UNICEF.5,10,18 Parents, pregnant women and young children have been under-represented in urban planning processes.18 Involving children and families in urban planning provides opportunities to create positive physical environments that promote creativity, play and feelings of ownership, which are important elements of early childhood development.10

What can municipalities do to support early childhood development?

Local governments are responsible for local urban planning and have the capacity to regulate certain environments used by families with young children.19 According to the best-available research, there are several ways local governments can implement changes to help support early childhood development:

  • Promote young children’s ability to interact with the environment. This could be through providing safe, walkable neighbourhoods with low traffic exposure and improving access to and the availability of green, open spaces.
  • Protect young children from environmental harm. This could involve limiting exposure to environmental toxins by reducing high traffic exposure close to child-relevant destinations and providing ideal temperature control in indoor environments young children frequent (child care centres, libraries, swimming pools).
  • Involve families and children in neighbourhood planning. This is not always easy to do and there are guides available on how to implement this.

Local governments may also need to work with other child-oriented local organisations when creating environments that promote early childhood development.


Local physical environmental features (e.g. green spaces and open public spaces, traffic exposure, residential density and the climate) affect young children’s development. Local governments have a valuable role in designing urban environments to support early childhood development and can use this evidence in their decision making to assist in this process.

Related resources


1. Moore, T. G., Arefadib, N., Deery, A., West, S., & Keyes, M. (2017). The first thousand days: An evidence paper-summary. Parkville, Victoria: Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

2. AEDC. (2019). Why the AEDC is important. Melbourne: Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). Retrieved from

3. Irwin, L. G., Siddiqi, A., & Hertzman, G. (2007). Early child development: A powerful equalizer. Vancouver, BC: Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP).

4. Alderton, A., Villanueva, K., O’Connor, M., Boulangé, C., & Badland, H. (2019). Reducing inequities in early childhood mental health: How might the neighborhood built environment help close the gap? A systematic search and critical review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(9), 1516.

5. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). (2021). Child Friendly Cities Initiative. UNICEF. Retrieved from

6. Adams, S., & Savahl, S. (2017). Nature as children's space: A systematic review. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(5), 291–321.

7. Gill, T. (2014). The benefits of children's engagement with nature: A systematic literature review. Children Youth and Environments, 24(2), 10–34.

8. Islam, M. Z., Johnston, J., & Sly, P. D. (2020). Green space and early childhood development: A systematic review. Reviews on Environmental Health, 35(2), 189–200.

9. Mygind, L., Kurtzhals, M., Nowell, C., Melby, P. S., Stevenson, M. P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. et al. (2021). Landscapes of becoming social: A systematic review of evidence for associations and pathways between interactions with nature and socioemotional development in children. Environment International, 146, 106238.

10. Voce, A. (2018). Cities alive: Designing for urban childhoods. Children, Youth and Environments, 28(2), 78–81.

11. Christian, H., Ball, S. J., Zubrick, S. R., Brinkman, S., Turrell, G., Boruff, B., & Foster, S. (2017). Relationship between the neighbourhood built environment and early child development. Health & Place, 48, 90–101.

12. Bell, M. F., Turrell, G., Beesley, B., Boruff, B., Trapp, G., Zubrick, S. R., & Christian, H. E. (2020). Children’s neighbourhood physical environment and early development: an individual child level linked data study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 74(4), 321–329.

13. Christian, H., Zubrick, S. R., Foster, S., Giles-Corti, B., Bull, F., Wood, L. et al. (2015). The influence of the neighborhood physical environment on early child health and development: A review and call for research. Health & Place, 33, 25–36.

14. Olson, D. M., & Metz, G. A. (2020). Climate change is a major stressor causing poor pregnancy outcomes and child development. F1000Research, 9.

15. Stanberry, L. R., Thomson, M. C., & James, W. (2018). Prioritizing the needs of children in a changing climate. PLoS Medicine, 15(7), e1002627.

16. Helldén, D., Andersson, C., Nilsson, M., Ebi, K. L., Friberg, P., & Alfvén, T. (2021). Climate change and child health: A scoping review and an expanded conceptual framework. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(3), e164–e175.

17. Pamukcu-Albers, P., Ugolini, F., La Rosa, D., Grădinaru, S. R., Azevedo, J. C., & Wu, J. (2021). Building green infrastructure to enhance urban resilience to climate change and pandemics. Landscape Ecology36(3), 665–673.

18. 8 80 Cities. (2017). Building better cities with young children and families. Toronto, ON: 8 80 Cities. Retrieved from

19. Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV). (2021). Council responsibilities. Melbourne: MAV. Retrieved from