Children’s neighbourhood physical environment and early development: an individual child level linked data study

A/Prof Hayley Christian1,2, Dr Megan Bell2, Prof Gavin Turrell3,4, Dr Bryan Boruff5, Prof Stephen R Zubrick6

1Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
2School of Population and Global Health, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
3Healthy Liveable Cities Group, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
4Centre for Research and Action in Public Health, Health Research Institute, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
5School of Agriculture and Environment, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
6Centre for Child Health Research, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


Identification of features of the neighbourhood physical environment that have a causal association with positive child development is important for promoting long-term developmental health. Previous research on these associations have been conducted at the neighbourhood level, and do not account for individual variation in exposure to these features. This cross-sectional study utilised de-identified linked administrative data. Neighbourhood features were measured with Geographic Information Systems and identified within a 1600 m service area around the child’s home address. A random selection of 5024 Western Australian children who participated in the 2012 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC; median age 5 years, 5 months) were included. Multi-level logistic regressions modelled the odds of children scoring in the bottom 10% on the physical, social or emotional AEDC domains as an outcome of neighbourhood features. After adjustment for individual and neighbourhood sociodemographic factors, lower odds of physical vulnerability were associated with increased neighbourhood residential density, presence of a railway station, and higher counts of playgroups and kindergartens. Larger areas of neighbourhood home-yard space were associated with increased odds of physical and social vulnerability. Presence of high-quality green spaces was associated with lower odds of social vulnerability. Increased road traffic exposure was associated with higher odds of social and emotional vulnerability. The neighbourhood physical environment has a weak but significant association with early childhood development. Future research should consider the interplay between the neighbourhood environment and proximal influences, including parenting attributes and socioeconomic status, and how they influence early child development.


Associate Professor Christian is a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow. She leads the ‘Child Physical Activity, Health and Development’ team at the Telethon Kids Institute. Hayley also holds a Senior Research Fellow position at the University of Western Australia. Hayley leads the PLAYCE (PLAY Spaces and Environments for Children’s Physical Activity, Health & Development) program of research, which is a multidisciplinary team focused on improving children’s physical activity levels, health and well-being through multi-level interventions focused on the child, family, social and built environment.