The physical environment and child development: An international review

Kim T. Ferguson, Rochelle C. Cassells, Jack W. MacAllister, Gary W. Evans
Published Online:
28 Jun 2013
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 48 Issue 4

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A growing body of research in the United States and Western Europe documents significant effects of the physical environment (toxins, pollutants, noise, crowding, chaos, and housing, school and neighborhood quality) on children and adolescents' cognitive and socioemotional development. Much less is known about these relations in other contexts, particularly the global South. We thus briefly review the evidence for relations between child development and the physical environment in Western contexts, and discuss some of the known mechanisms behind these relations. We then provide a more extensive review of the research to date outside of Western contexts, with a specific emphasis on research in the global South. Where the research is limited, we highlight relevant data documenting the physical environment conditions experienced by children, and make recommendations for future work. In these recommendations, we highlight the limitations of employing research methodologies developed in Western contexts (Ferguson & Lee, 2013). Finally, we propose a holistic, multidisciplinary, and multilevel approach based on Bronfenbrenner's (1979) bioecological model to better understand and reduce the aversive effects of multiple environmental risk factors on the cognitive and socioemotional development of children across the globe.

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