In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and the Environment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Childhood Studies Children and the Environment
Louise Chawla, Debra Cushing, Laura Malinin, Illène Pevec, Willem van Vliet, Kelly Zuniga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0034


Children and the environment cover a broad, interdisciplinary field of research and practice. The social sciences often use the word “environment” to mean the social, political, or economic context of children’s lives, but this bibliography covers physical settings. It focuses on a place-based scale that children can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and navigate: not large, abstract scales such as national identities or population dynamics, or small scales such as environmental impacts on genes or cell functions. Attention to the everyday settings of children’s lives grew in the 18th century, when Romantic literature introduced the theme of children and nature. In the 19th century, concern for children’s welfare included an interest in conditions for children in burgeoning industrial cities, and justifications for early streetcar and railroad suburbs included claims that they would save children from the dangers of cities and provide the healthful benefits of natural surroundings. In the 20th century, academic disciplines developed different lines of inquiry about the impact of the physical environment on children and how children relate to places: ethnographic studies of children in different parts of the world in the fields of anthropology and geography; sociological studies of different populations of children in different settings; educational research on the learning opportunities that different school and out-of-school settings afford; medical research to understand disease vectors and the impact of pollutants on children; and efforts in the field of environment and behavior research more broadly, to understand how built and designed environments affect children physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally. At the beginning of the 21st century, children and the environment is an active area of inquiry seeking to understand rapidly changing conditions for children as the world urbanizes, opportunities for free play outdoors and independent mobility erode in many parts of the world, media environments consume more of children’s time, and awareness grows that children need opportunities to contribute to creating sustainable societies.

General Overviews

Since the 1970s, how children use environments and how physical environments influence child development have been important topics in environmental psychology and the interdisciplinary field of environment and behavior studies more broadly, as evidenced in Altman and Wohlwill 1978. This work brings together social scientists with people who shape environments through urban planning and design, architecture, and landscape architecture. Extended reviews of this literature in Heft and Wohlwill 1987 and Evans 2006 and the edited collections Weinstein and David 1987 and Spencer and Blades 2006 apply theories of cognitive psychology and child development with the goal of understanding how to create environments that best support children. Holloway and Valentine 2000 is influenced by the sociology of childhood, which argues that childhood and children’s use of space are social constructions, and therefore it emphasizes changes in children’s place experience depending on social contexts. Dudek 2005 and Day and Midbjer 2007 illustrate efforts by architects to apply principles of child development to design.

  • Altman, Irwin, and Joachim Wohlwill, eds. Children and the Environment. New York: Plenum, 1978.

    Opening chapters present influential theories and supporting evidence related to four settings of children’s lives: the natural environment, home environments, neighborhood landscapes, and schools. Concluding chapters consider how children’s interactions with the environment can serve the functions of privacy, spatial cognition, and participatory planning.

  • Day, Christopher, and Anita Midbjer. Environment and Children. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2007.

    Essays that discuss how built environments affect children’s health, behavior, education, imagination, and their connection to the earth. The book draws on the first author’s experience designing schools, kindergartens, and childcare centers, but it generalizes design principles to home environments as well. Illustrated with drawings of design patterns.

  • Dudek, Mark, ed. Children’s Spaces. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2005.

    A collection focused on design for children, emphasizing schools and schoolyards but including playgrounds, gardens, communities, and digital landscapes. It examines connections between design and children’s learning, advocating that children are competent and creative and need opportunities to express their environmental needs. Useful for the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and education.

  • Evans, Gary. “Child Development and the Physical Environment.” Annual Review of Psychology 57 (2006): 423–451.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190057

    A review of characteristics of the physical environment that influence child development, with an emphasis on risk factors: toxic exposure, noise, crowding, poor housing, and neighborhood quality. A section on schools and daycare centers reviews the impacts of school size, building quality, open-plan designs, lighting, and indoor climate.

  • Heft, Harry, and Joachim Wohlwill. “The Physical Environment and the Development of the Child.” In Handbook of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 1. Edited by Daniel Stokols and Irwin Altman, 281–328. New York: Wiley, 1987.

    Anchored in theoretical approaches to understanding the role of the physical environment in child development, this chapter analyzes the environment as a source of stimulation, feedback, and affordances. It applies these perspectives to research on the home, institutional environments, outdoor spaces,and natural and urban environments and discusses implications for design.

  • Holloway, Sarah, and Gill Valentine, eds. Children’s Geographies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000.

    An examination of children’s use of the environment in three domains: “Playing” (leisure use of streets, public spaces, commercial facilities, and rural areas), “Living” (family rules, cyberspace, and streets as home for street children), and “Learning” (regulated space use in primary schools, playgrounds, childcare centers, and cities).

  • Spencer, Christopher, and Mark Blades, eds. Children and Their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511521232

    This collection focuses on how children understand and experience places and participate in their design, with a section dedicated to adolescent experiences. Apart from one chapter on classrooms, it features large-scale environments such as countries, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and natural areas.

  • Weinstein, Carol, and Thomas David, eds. Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum, 1987.

    The majority of chapters in this collection are setting specific: the home, playgrounds, childcare settings, and institutions such as schools and juvenile detention centers. Additional chapters discuss children’s interactions with the environment through play, place identity, and participation in design processes.

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