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1 billion children are currently growing up in cities, of which about 380 million are under 5 years old.
1 million neural connections are formed every second in a young child’s brain.
This means that every second, an incredibly high amount (roughly 380 trillion) of new neural connections are happening within the brains of babies and toddlers across cities around the world.
These neural connections are shaped by the quantity, frequency, and duration of warm, stimulating, and responsive interactions between caregivers – most often parents – and young children.
The quality of urban spaces influences babies and toddlers directly by shaping their spatial experiences, and indirectly by modulating the quantity, frequency, and duration of child-caregiver interactions in cities.
Urban planners, designers, managers, decision-makers, and all those involved in the maintenance, upkeep, and usage of urban environments are brain builders too and can support caregivers in giving urban babies and toddlers the best chances in life.
A baby or toddler’s relationships with the adults in their life are the most important influences on their development. These relationships begin at home, with parents and other family members, and then extend outside the home onto the street, the neighbourhood, and the wider city.
Caregivers are responsible for a child’s safety and health, as well as what they eat and how they perceive the world. When parents and other caregivers talk, sing and play with their babies, they help to build a healthy brain wired to learn and interact with others. Studies show that warm, stimulating, responsive caregiving is one of the best predictors that children will do well in school, and be happy and healthy adults.
To design better cities for babies, toddlers and caregivers, we need to understand their urban experiences:
• Families with babies and toddlers typically need to access more services such as childcare or healthcare, and more frequently than most other residents.
• Access to nature and play opportunities are crucial to the development of children and the well-being of caregivers. The smallest features, such as a step or a pattern of tiles on the sidewalk, invite play and exploration.
• Young children depend on their caregivers to move around the city, and their mobility range is restricted by their slower pace, their need for more space on transit and on sidewalks, and the necessity to pause and rest more frequently. Waiting (for buses, appointments and in queues) is a challenge.
• Toddlers’ shorter height places them consistently close to cars’ exhaust fumes. They are also physiologically more vulnerable to air pollution.
• Caregiver mental health and well-being plays a key role in the healthy development of children, as it impacts their ability to provide warm, stimulating and responsive care. Caregivers tend to rely on support networks for caregiving – formal such as childcare, or informal such as grandparents or neighbours.