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Ed. Magazine

Place Definitely Matters

People shape young brains, but so does the environment
Illustration by Tete Garcia
Illustration: Tete Garcia

No two educational experiences are alike for students. There are too many factors at play to perfectly replicate how a single child learns. But as the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has explored for more than 15 years, children respond to educational opportunities differently for a wide variety of reasons.

For much of its existence, the center focused on the ways in which early educational develoment, including the ways that children learn, and the resulting outcomes are shaped by who cares for a child as they grow. Those developmental relationships influence the way young brains form and how children interact with the world the rest of their lives. But in a new working paper released this spring, “Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development,” the center has attempted to expand the lens of its research into much broader terrain.

The titular conclusion of Working Paper 16 — that place, not just relationships, matters to the developing child — is not necessarily new. But the expanded reframing and focus is key, and as Center on the Developing Child director Jack Shonkoff says, the simplicity is kind of the point.

“The most powerful science from a public education point of view is when the science tells you something your grandmother could have told you,” Shonkoff says. Of course, place matters, but how much it matters and how individual children respond is where things get interesting. He cited an easy example: Even children coming from the same household often won’t respond identically to much of anything, let alone have identical educational outcomes.

“Place always matters, but it matters differently to different parts of the population,” he says. “We’re saying you can’t disregard the broader environment, and you have to look at it closely just like you look at the environment of relationships.”

Bird illustration by Tete Garcia

Shonkoff describes it as a movement beyond the debate of nature vs. nurture: Working Paper 16 declares the answer is a resounding “both.” The relationship between a child and their caregiver is still essential to development and learning but as Lindsey Burghardt, the center’s first chief science officer, says, it’s “just one part of the frame.”

More broadly, where children grow up and what environmental factors they’re exposed to introduces an endless array of factors that can help or hurt their educational opportunities and outcomes in life. Polluted air from nearby highways, lead exposure due to old pipes, and a lack of access to greenspace can all negatively impact child development and learning. Conversely, clean air, clean water, and a safe place to play all promote resilience and more positive outcomes. Depending on where children live, grow, play, and learn, they can be disproportionately exposed to those positive and negative factors.

That reframing, and the growing understanding of how climate change can impact the health of children, the paper’s authors say, is a stake in the ground that will serve as the starting point for the center’s future endeavors.

“What this paper represents is following our north star, being led by what science is telling us and recognizing that the frontiers of science are always moving,” Shonkoff says. “We’re moving upstream and we’re going to start to connect those dots to what’s happening outside the family and outside the school. How do things that happen out there in the broader environment get into the body and affect your brain, which then affects the way you learn and the way you behave?”

“Place Matters” often focuses on how systemic factors have in uenced racial disparity in education, stressing that outcome limitations often ascribed to race are not biological in nature. The paper references the Childhood Opportunity Index (COI) put out by diversitydatakids, a Brandeis-based research program. The COI measures the quality of resources and conditions essential for a healthy child to develop in a neighborhood. Safe housing, access to healthy food, parks and playgrounds and clean air are all measured as significant factors. When examining the 100 largest metro areas in the United States, the average Child Opportunity Score is 73 for white children and 72 for Asian children, but just 33 for Latinx children and 24 for Black children.

These stark differences are not created by race, they stress, but by place. Working Paper 16 explores how our environment impacts who we are, noting that who is in certain environments is determined by people. In other words, humans create racial disparity and place reinforces these impacts on the health of certain people because the places they live are human built.

“We’re not the first people to come out and say this. That racism is a driver of public health disparities,” Burkhardt said. “Race is a social construct, and the inequities that are experienced as a result of those inequities, those are all shaped by intentional policy decisions. We have created the inequitable environments that children are born into and grow up in. And it’s not just in the past, it’s ongoing.”

In America, much of that disparity comes from big, systemic issues such as historic redlining and institutional racism. For individual educators, changing those factors impeding learning can seem daunting. But, as Burghardt points out, because humans caused these issues through built spaces, it also means they can be changed for the better. If policymakers acknowledge the impact those environments have on education, places can be rebuilt for the better.

“In a way, it’s an awesome window of opportunity. We made intentional decisions to create these environments, we can make intentional decisions in ways to shape positive environments and positive health,” Burghardt says. “There’s so much opportunity because it is shaped by policy decisions. Which is great because we can do something about it.”

Burghardt notes, however, that educational and medical policy should not simply try to shield children from bad outcomes as much as it should promote positive impacts. The concept of promoting resiliency is far more important than removing all environmental or developmental issues altogether. Stress is an important part of the developmental process, too, but the goal is to introduce as many positive factors as possible to promote good outcomes when that stress arrives.

She relates a human’s flight-or-fight response to a tiger chasing them in the jungle. When a person has a baseline of low-stress existence, the temporary danger creates important reactions: an elevated heart rate and the production of stress hormones. They know danger is there and, most likely, run away. But the baseline of safety is the key.

“The tiger is not intended to chase you for your whole life,” Burghardt says. “When stress levels stay high for really long periods of time, that’s where you can get negative effects on your biology.”

Children are born with no defenses for the hidden dangers lurking in their neighborhoods. But “Place Matters” argues that the teachers and other adults in their lives can work to make sure those harmful stressors are few and far between for as many children as possible. Through better policy and an educational philosophy grounded in empathy to their experiences, the proverbial tigers can be kept at bay.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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