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How Environmental Factors Influence Child Growth and Development

It was the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who said “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”. So, what did he mean, and was he right?

Firstly, for the modern day we need to adjust the quote to “Give me a child until they are 7 and I will show you the adult”. This famous quotation suggests that a person’s character and future development are heavily influenced by their upbringing and experiences during the formative years of their early childhood.

Research carried out for the Royal Foundation by Ipsos, Understanding Public Attitudes Towards Early Childhood, Report 3 July 2023, found that two in three respondents (67%) agree that family and friends during their early childhood had a big impact in shaping who they are today, with the majority saying the same about wider society (55%). When asked who specifically impacted them, the public are most likely to mention extended family, friends and teachers. These people often offer childcare support, or encourage them with education or to pursue passions. Appreciation for the role wider played in shaping children is highest among higher earners, Londoners and young people.

The support that people in the lives of children provide in their early years is only one aspect of the environmental factors that have a significant impact on a child’s growth and development. Other environmental factors that influence a child’s growth and development include:

  • Physical Environment
  • Socio-economic Status (SES)
  • Family Dynamics and Relationships
  • Education
  • Care
  • Nutrition and Diet
  • Cultural and Social Influences
  • Psychological Factors

Research has shown that all of these factors can, to some degree, have a positive or negative bearing on, and play a significant role in, shaping how a child develops, and can create disparities in the potential outcomes for children.

Understanding and addressing the multiple environmental factors impacting children’s development is essential for promoting positive outcomes for a child in later life. It requires partnership and cooperation between all contributors, such as parents, carers, the wider family, healthcare, education, social services and community organisations, to ensure that the environment that the child grows up in is a supportive one where the child can grow and flourish.

In this article we will examine these environments that are known to have an impact on child growth and development in more detail, and consider how these various aspects play pivotal roles in a child’s overall growth.

The Role of Genetics vs Environment

The debate of nature vs nurture, that is the extent to which genetics or external influences, such as nutrition and comfort, influence a child’s growth and development, has raged for over a century. The term was first used in the mid-1800s by the English Victorian polymath and the originator of the behavioural genetics movement Francis Galton, in discussion about the influence of heredity and environment on social advancement. He argued that intelligence and character traits came from hereditary factors. His beliefs were in clear opposition to earlier scholars such as philosopher John Locke, who is well known for the theory that children are born a “blank slate” with their traits developing completely from experience and learning.

This debate continued throughout the 20th century, and despite the fact that these two perspectives were often in fierce opposition to each other, both shared the view that the environment and a person’s unique experiences, i.e. nurture, were the prevailing forces in development.

Today, there is a much better understanding of how the brain works and how genes have an influence on the environments that we experience, so the debate of nature vs nurture is of less importance; nature and nurture are intertwined with one another.

The latest thinking is that the world in which a young child grows up shapes the way their brain develops. Early relationships, environments and experiences – i.e. positive protective factors or adverse experiences – can either support or inhibit healthy development.

From birth, the interaction of genes and the environment work to influence who children are and who they will become. The genetic directions a child inherits from their parents may set out a blueprint for development; however, the environment can impact how these directions are expressed, shaped or even silenced.

Each child inherits a total of 46 chromosomes from their parents, 23 chromosomes from each. A genotype refers to all of the genes that a person has inherited. A phenotype is how these genes are actually expressed. The phenotype can include physical traits, such as height and colour of the eyes, as well as non-physical traits such as naturally being an introvert or an extrovert.

A blueprint is usually a two-dimensional set of drawings that provides a detailed visual representation of how an architect wants a building to look. If in the construction of the building, two different builders could use very different materials to construct the building from the blueprint, it will result in similar but different buildings. If you consider the genetic blueprint and different environmental influences in this way, you can see how whilst genetics do play a role, environmental factors also significantly shape a child’s development and growth.

Physical Environment

The physical environment plays a key role in supporting and expanding children’s development and learning. All aspects of children’s health and development work together to form their overall well-being.

The effects of bad housing conditions and homelessness can have an adverse impact on a child’s development and well-being. According to the homeless charity Shelter:

Homeless-boy-sleeping-outside
  • Children growing up in bad housing have up to a 25% higher risk of severe ill health and disability during childhood and early adulthood.
  • Homeless children are up to four times more likely to suffer mental health problems than other children.
  • Offending behaviour may be linked to behavioural problems that emerge among children living in poor housing conditions, highlighting evidence that almost half of young offenders have experienced homelessness.

Many anecdotal accounts of family experiences of housing deprivation exist, and have identified several ways in which housing can influence a child’s health, safety and well-being. Cold temperatures make people more susceptible to infection; however, there is limited quantitative evidence linking lack of home warmth to childhood infection rates. Damp conditions are the ideal environment for growth of bacteria and viruses, and there is some evidence linking damp and mouldy housing to children’s respiratory infections. Each year, the NHS spends an estimated £1.4 billion on treating illnesses associated with living in cold or damp housing. When wider societal costs are considered, such as healthcare, that figure rises to £15.4 billion.

According to the English Housing Survey, around 904,000 homes in England had damp problems in 2021. Of these, around 11% in the private rented sector had damp problems compared with 4% in the social-rented sector and 2% of owner-occupied homes.

Nearly 31,000 children aged four and under are admitted to hospitals in England each year with conditions linked to the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is known to be caused or exacerbated by damp and mould. NHS figures show that nearly 80% of these, or 24,485 babies and toddlers, develop acute bronchiolitis needing hospital treatment. Some studies suggest between 20% and 40% of children who have bronchiolitis in their early years go on to develop asthma.

The government identifies air pollution as the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. Children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of air pollution because they breathe faster, so they inhale more airborne toxicants in proportion to their weight than adults exposed to the same amount of air pollution. Also, they experience the effects more because their organs are still forming. Therefore, exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy and early childhood can have harmful and irreversible effects on the development of the lungs and other organs, with the potential for respiratory and other health problems as an adult. Many studies have shown clear links between exposure to air pollution and issues with growth and development in early life.

Results from a literature review carried out by The University of Manchester suggest traffic-related air pollution, specifically particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are detrimental to cognitive functioning in children, particularly working memory, a type of short-term memory essential for completing tasks.

Opportunities for children to play and exercise outside and to get plenty of fresh air are important to a child’s development. Children with more green space near their homes have significantly stronger bones, a study has found, potentially leading to lifelong health benefits. Scientists found that the children living in places with 20–25% more natural green areas had increased bone strength that was equivalent to half a year’s natural growth. The study, the first of its kind, also found that the risk of having very low bone density was about 65% lower for these children. The researchers said the results were important as low bone growth at a young age was as crucial to the onset of osteoporosis as bone loss through ageing.

Parents-playing-with-children-outdoors

Socio-economic Status (SES)

Poverty can cause harm at any age, but particularly for the youngest children. A substantial body of research shows that family poverty is associated with, and can cause, poorer academic attainment and hinder social and emotional development. Gaps in development between disadvantaged and advantaged children emerge very early on. Poverty impacts are also not the same for everyone and are further compounded by inequalities in relation to parents’ ethnicity, health and economic status.

Poverty is often defined as not having enough material resources such as money, housing or food to meet the minimum needs, both material and social, in today’s society. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported this year (2024) that more than 1 in 5 people in the UK (22%) were in poverty in 2021/22, that is 14.4 million people. This included:

  • 8.1 million (or around 2 in 10) working-age adults
  • 4.2 million (or nearly 3 in 10) children
  • 2.1 million (or around 1 in 6) pensioners

And that 6 million people, or 4 in 10 people, in poverty were in very deep poverty, with an income far below the standard poverty line. Poverty affects young children’s experiences directly. Parents have less money to meet children’s material and social needs. The sharply rising costs of providing the basic essentials such as food, warmth, lighting, housing costs, nappies, baby food and clothing, have created acute pressure for many families.

The causal relationship between child poverty and educational outcomes is well established, with children from lower-income households less likely to achieve than their more affluent peers. This results in unequal life chances and futures, with children growing up in poverty earning less as adults. The Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, convened by Child Poverty Action Group, has conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of 1,000 professionals working in every role in schools in England. Findings included:

  • 79% of school staff say they and their colleagues increasingly have less time and capacity for other parts of their roles because of the effects of child poverty.
  • 74% of school staff say there is evidence that children in poverty are falling further behind their peers in learning than previously at school.
  • 70% of head teachers say more parents are asking for help with essentials like food and clothing.
  • 68% of school staff say more pupils don’t have money for enough food at lunchtime.
  • 80% of school staff say providing universal free school meals to all school children would reduce child poverty in their school.

The results show that child poverty in schools is getting worse and increasingly stealing children’s learning. School staff in all roles have overwhelmingly reported that child poverty has worsened in their school in the last two academic years. The results show that no part of children’s learning and the school system is left untouched, with school staff reporting that pupils are frequently tired and hungry, unable to concentrate, and without the resources and equipment they need to fully engage with the curriculum.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has cited studies that have found that there is strong evidence that households’ financial resources are important for children’s outcomes, and that this relationship is one of cause and effect.

tired-school-pupil-in-classsroom

Family Dynamics and Relationships

The home environment plays a crucial role in a child’s development. Supportive and nurturing family relationships can promote healthy emotional development, such as when families spend quality time together, expressing love and support, they create a secure environment that helps a child to develop a strong sense of self-worth and emotional well-being. This positive home environment enables a child to develop curiosity which in turn leads to exploration and learning.

Family activities such as game playing, days out, reading together, cooking, and solving puzzles and problems, all contribute to a child developing critical thinking skills, language abilities, cooperation, social skills, empathy, a sense of fair play and a thirst for knowledge.

Strong family bonds and supportive networks such as those with wider family members, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends, create a sense of belonging and security for a child which provides them with a strong foundation.

Parenting styles can also affect everything from a child’s self-esteem to their academic success; the way that a parent interacts with their child and how they discipline them will influence them for the rest of their life. In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind described three distinct parenting styles based on parental demands and responsiveness to children. A fourth style, neglectful, was added later based on work by other researchers. These main parenting styles are:

Authoritarian – Authoritarian parents take over the decision-making power, rarely giving children any input in the matter. They are not nurturing, lenient or communicable, they make the rules and enforce the consequences with little regard for a child’s opinion. When brought up by an authoritarian parent, children are often well-behaved at home, but they may rebel when with classmates or friends.

Permissive – Permissive parents cater to their children’s needs without giving out much discipline. When they do use consequences, they may not stick. For example, they will give privileges back if a child begs, or they may allow a child early reprieve from the “naughty step”, or whatever forfeit they use, if the child promises to be good. Permissive parents are the total opposite of the authoritarian and may impact a child’s ability to self-regulate later in life.

Authoritative – Children brought up with authoritative parenting tend to be happy, confident and successful. They are also more likely to make sound decisions and evaluate safety risks on their own. Authoritative parenting is linked to academic achievement, heightened self-esteem and resiliency.

Neglectful – Without any guidance, structure or parental involvement, children of neglectful parents often play up. Research has found that children with uninvolved parents have the worst outcomes, and they are more likely to experience diminished self-esteem, rebelliousness, delinquency such as vandalism, assault, petty theft etc., low cognitive skills and poor emotional empathy.

A positive parenting style involves finding the perfect balance between loving, protecting, communicating, guiding, nurturing and supporting a child. Positive parenting helps a child to grow and develop in a positive healthy way.

Early Childhood Education and Care

Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) refers to education and childcare provided in regulated settings from birth to the start of primary school. The importance of early years education and care has been well documented and studied, and has influenced public policy in recent years. Early childhood education and care can take many forms, for example:

  • Registered childminders
  • Day nurseries
  • Nursery classes
  • Playgroups
  • Pre-schools
  • Childcare providers specialising in education and care for children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND)

It is more than just preparation for primary school, and focuses on the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and well-being. All nurseries, childminders and other registered childcare providers in England and Wales are regularly inspected by Ofsted to make sure they ensure children’s well-being and support their development.

International research shows that a child who spends longer in early years education and care has better educational outcomes later on. It also shows that high-quality early years education and care particularly benefits children from low-income backgrounds. Some of the other advantages that ECEC can contribute to a child’s growth and development include:

  • Age-appropriate learning experiences introducing them to basic concepts such as numbers, letters, shapes and colours, help to develop language, numeracy, literacy and cognitive skills.
  • Opportunities to socialise with other children and adults outside the family circle enhance communication, cooperation, sharing, empathy, emotional intelligence and self-regulation skills, and help to build relationships.
  • Organised physical activities, outdoor and indoor play, and art develops motor skills and creativity.
  • Regular attendance helps prepare children for formal education facilitating a smooth transition to school which can reduce anxiety and set a child up for success academically and socially.

Early years education and care that offers opportunities for parental involvement and engagement can help to strengthen the parent-child bond, enhance communication between home and school, and empower parents to support their child’s learning and development.

Nutrition and Diet

Early childhood is a time of rapid growth, development and activity, so good nutrition and a balanced diet is essential. This is also a vital time for healthy tooth development and prevention of tooth decay.

Breastfeeding gives a child a healthy start in life. It supports healthy growth and protects against life-threatening and chronic illnesses. Breastmilk includes long-chain fatty acids and other nutrients needed for healthy brain development. Breastfeeding is associated with improved cognitive development in children at age 5 years, as studies have shown that children who are breastfed are more likely to have good school performance at age 5 years compared with children who are non-breastfed.

Other benefits of breastfeeding for child growth and development include:

  • It is a way of bonding with baby, giving mother and child quality time together, providing a baby’s first model for intimate relationships that fosters a sense of security and positive self-esteem that helps emotional development.
  • Breast milk is a bioactive fluid. It contains proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals plus antibodies to fight germs and it lowers the risk of ear, respiratory and gastro-intestinal infections and diarrhoea. It may reduce the risk of childhood asthma, allergic rhinitis, an inflammation inside the nose caused by allergens, wheezing and developing severe eczema.
  • Breastmilk also contains hormones that help a baby’s cognitive and physical development.

In the first few years of life, general eating habits and patterns are formed. The British Nutrition Foundation states that “Children are likely to adopt the same eating patterns as their parents, so it is important that the whole family adopts a healthy lifestyle.”

Instilling healthy eating habits is important for children as it:

  • Is crucial for their growth and development. Balanced nutrition is essential for building strong bones, developing muscles, supporting brain and nervous system development, and enhancing endurance.
  • Positively influences cognitive abilities, improving attention span, memory and problem-solving skills.
  • Stabilises blood sugar levels, preventing energy crashes and mood swings.
  • Reduces the risk of developing obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other chronic conditions later in life.
  • Establishes a solid foundation for physical, cognitive, mental and emotional well-being.

Fresh produce provides vitamins, nutrients, fibres and minerals that are essential in keeping a child healthy. It is recommended that children consume five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day. The nutrients that a child needs for a healthy balanced diet are found in various fresh foods including:

  • Vitamin A – for healthy eyes and skin and protection from infection; found in apricots, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, grapefruit, greens, leaf and romaine lettuce, mangos, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon
  • Vitamin C – for healthy teeth and gums and helps to heal cuts and wounds; found in bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, oranges, pineapple, strawberries, tomatoes
  • Calcium – for healthy teeth and bones; found in rhubarb and greens such as cabbage, kale, spinach
  • Fibre – for a healthy digestive system; found in apples, bananas, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, lentils, peaches, pears, raspberries, spinach
  • Vitamin B12 – for wound healing and normal cell division; found in asparagus, broccoli, peas, beans, greens, spinach, strawberries
  • Iron – for healthy blood and learning ability; found in beans, lentils, spinach
  • Magnesium – for healthy bones; found in beans, spinach
  • Potassium – for healthy blood pressure; found in bananas, beans, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes

Encouraging a child to help cook in the kitchen can bring numerous benefits that extend beyond the nutritional value of good food. Cooking provides numerous opportunities for a child to enhance their motor skills in a fun and engaging manner. From measuring ingredients to stirring, chopping and whisking, each culinary task contributes to their overall physical development and encourages motor skills through activities such as carrying pots, lifting bowls and stirring ingredients. These actions require strength, balance and coordination.

It also helps a child to learn about nutrition, food tastes, food safety, and how to follow instructions which fosters creativity, independence and responsibility and helps a child to experiment with tasting a variety of foods, thereby developing their palate so that they continue to consume a balanced diet.

Empowering parents and caregivers with the knowledge to make informed nutritional choices for a child is vital. It can be helpful and fun to take a child food shopping so that they can see healthy food options and talk about them with their parent/caregiver. Providing children and their families with information about balanced diets, the importance of fresh produce, and the risks of excessive processed foods, can help cultivate a generation that makes informed and healthier food choices.

However, the cost-of-living crisis has led to soaring food insecurity across the UK, with many low-income households making less nutritious food choices in order to survive. This will have a negative impact on the growth and development of children in low-income families. Around 800,000 children are living in poverty but are not eligible for free lunches, according to the Food Foundation. They have found that one in four households with children (25.8%) have experienced food insecurity affecting an estimated 4 million children in the UK, and that larger families are more likely to experience food insecurity.

family-cooking-together

Cultural and Social Influences

As we have seen so far, child development is a dynamic, interactive process. Every child is unique in interacting with the world around them, and what they receive from others and from their environment shapes how they think, behave, grow and develop. Culture plays an important role in how parents raise their children, and children growing up in different cultures receive specific inputs from their environment.

Parenting styles can vary between cultures. In some cultures, parents are more likely to be physically affectionate, hugging and kissing their children. In other cultures, the same love is less overt, provided, for example, by preparing meals in a special way. These parents may not say, specifically, “I love you”, but their actions make the child feel loved and accepted. Many cultures could learn from one another about parenting and child development.

Language is one of the many ways through which culture affects development. In some cultures, there may be issues with who talks to small children, in what context, and about what topics within their family structure or cultural structure. One-on-one interaction is a predominant pattern in mainstream UK culture, whereas multiparty interaction dominates in many other cultures. Also, in many cultures, there is a view that language and other skills are acquired by a child by observation, rather than by specific interventions.

Other sociocultural characteristics, including economic hardship, religion, politics, neighbourhoods, schools and social support, can also influence parenting, and in turn child growth and development. Parents who experience economic hardship tend to be more easily frustrated, depressed and unhappy, and these emotional characteristics can affect their parenting skills.

Parents may also have very different goals for their child that partially depend on their culture, values or socio-economic status, and this may influence the child’s growth, development and ambitions.

There appears to be little or no research on the effect of diverse cultures and values on child development interventions or, likewise, the effect that child development interventions have on diverse cultures and values. As policies usually reflect shared values, and in that sense, they are part of a culture or, more specifically, the dominant culture in any given place, they often do not work as intended when they are not consistent with the culture of families or individuals affected by them. This is an important notion that policymakers and early years education and care providers may need to keep in mind.

Psychological Factors

Positive experiences can boost a child’s self-esteem and confidence and contribute to their overall development and well-being. Conversely, negative experiences, such as stress, trauma and exposure to violence can have a profound impact on a child’s development and well-being, both physically and mentally.

A child living in a household where domestic abuse occurs can experience both short- and long-term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects as a result of witnessing domestic abuse. Building a child’s resilience can help give them the tools, skills and confidence they need to navigate these stressful situations. Early educators and parents can help a child to build resilience and confront uncertainty by teaching them to solve problems independently. Unfortunately, children need to experience some discomfort, but not stress or trauma, so that they can learn to work through it and develop their own problem-solving skills. Without this skill set in place, children may experience anxiety and learn to shut down in the face of adversity.

Nurturing strategies such as guided problem solving, that will help a child to cope with adversity, will set them up with healthy coping skills for the future. Factors such as a strong support network, positive feelings and emotions, and good problem-solving skills can increase resilience.

Conclusion

In this article we have looked at the many factors that influence the positive growth and development in a child’s early years, that is from birth until they begin compulsory education at around the age of 5 years.

Our earliest experiences, our environment, and influences can all impact our ability as we develop into adults to manage our emotions, to concentrate, to handle pressure, to form relationships, to believe in ourselves, to trust other people, to learn effectively and to be successful in whatever we decide to do. In turn they can then have an effect on our socio-economic status, physical and mental health and well-being, our satisfaction with our lives and on how we support the next generation.

Our development and growth do not stop after our early years, but the early years are the foundation on which they are built. Missing the opportunity to positively impact a child’s life in the early years will only heighten the need for remedial steps to be taken later in life to address any issues and to put development and growth back onto a positive path.

There are various organisations, charities and politicians that are raising the case for early years investment to address the numerous inequalities in early years education, health and care, such as but not limited to:

The King’s Fund

London Health and Care Partnership

The Sutton Trust

Health Equity North

The Royal Foundation for Early Childhood

Institute of Health Equity

A child’s life is not determined in the early years, and although we have seen that early childhood experiences, environment and influences can impact later life outcomes, a child’s future is not pre-determined by them. So, Aristotle was not entirely correct when stating “Give me a child until they are 7 and I will show you the adult”, although he did recognise the importance of creating supportive environments in the early years.

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About the author

Liz Wright

Liz has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she manages content production, as well as planning and delegating tasks. Liz works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. Outside of work Liz loves art, painting and spending time with family and friends.



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