We are passionate about ensuring a healthy start and healthy development for all children as we have seen the effects of poverty on child development firsthand in our therapy practice.
That’s why we’ve chosen to partner with Children International, an organization that focuses on making a long-term impact on kids living in poverty. The agency’s vision is to graduate healthy, educated, empowered, and employed young adults from their program so they can achieve the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty.
As school-based therapists, we’re drawn to the organization’s commitment to empowering and educating children and families, helping them make positive changes to realize their full potential. And it doesn’t end with education – Children International also provides employment support for older teens, including resume help, mock interviews and networking.
Children International ensures that kids have a healthy foundation from which they can grow by supporting healthy habits and connecting kids with health services. This is what they’re all about – giving kids the tools and supports they need to be the very best they can be! In order to help children and communities in need, it’s important to first understand the effects of poverty on child development. The research, along with our own clinical experience, shows that the impact is significant.
The Effects of Poverty on Child Development
Exposure to basic developmental experiences can be compromised for children who live in poverty due to a variety of reasons – from parent education to limitations in the physical environment that prevent movement and exploration.
The Physical Environment and Opportunities for Movement and Exploration
Research shows that motor development is directly related to the frequency and quality of movement experiences children have (1). In fact, studies suggest that “motor coordination and play do not simply emerge in all children as part of maturation; healthy physical development is not a sure thing.” So what determines whether or not a child will acquire functional motor skills and achieve healthy physical development? The child’s environment and the people in it. (2)
Children living in poverty may have less access to safe outdoor play spaces including playgrounds, green spaces, and wooded areas.
“Countless studies have shown that outdoor play from birth to age 5 produces developmental outcomes that simply can’t be achieved indoors.” (2) And research demonstrates that “the physical availability of parks does not guarantee park utilization” due to safety, traffic, walkability and overall quality. (3, 5) This is known as “social access” and it appears to be lacking for kids in poor communities.
Further, while playgrounds can be powerful tools for promoting active outdoor play, research shows “a strong association between the number of natural features in a play environment—e.g., grass, trees, hills, running water, and sand—and the activity level of children.” (4). These natural features are less likely to exist in highly concentrated urban areas where poverty rates tend to be higher.
Children living in high density, low income housing may have less access to space, stairs, and other settings that promote motor skill development.
One author noted that children’s crawling and walking were delayed due to a lack of access to adequate space and young children were entering preschool and school age with poorly developed motor skills (5). And in our therapy practice, we often see children who hesitate or even crawl or scoot on the stairs at school because they live in high rise apartment buildings and have not had access to stairs.
Children in low income families are more likely to receive poor-quality child care (6).
Lower quality daycare and urban child care settings have been associated with fewer opportunities for the types of physically active play and exploration that are associated with healthy development in kids (7).
Children living in poverty have less access to recreational opportunities and sports programming.
Having access to spaces and programs that encourage physical activity is beneficial for all kids. Children International shares Alan’s story – a kid whose participation in organized sports, nature hikes, and canoeing through Children International helped him develop social skills and more appropriate behavioral responses as well as supporting his academic achievement.
And we’ve seen this same kind of transformation in our work as well. In recent years, Lauren has run a group for boys who were interested in playing organized sports, but did not have access to recreational opportunities due to financial limitations and motor deficits. Once a week before school, Lauren facilitated drills and other practice activities to improve motor skills, coordination, balance, and strength while teaching the basics of several sports.
The boys demonstrated improvement in many of the target skills and also formed a strong social bond with one another, which was significant to their success and comfort level at school. Access to spaces and programs that promote physical development is a big deal and it’s a missing link for a lot of children who are living in poverty.
Availability and Education of Parents/Other Adult Caregivers
While the physical environment and opportunities for play and exploration are important factors in kids’ development, the people providing care and supervision for the children is equally important.
Families living in poverty may have less knowledge regarding developmental milestones and how to support them.
Evidence suggests that many parents and caregivers of children living in poverty have limited education, which “reduces their ability to provide a responsive stimulating environment for their children.” (8). Kids may spend more time in front of a screen and less time playing and engaging with others. Babies may have less access to important developmental experiences like tummy time.
Parents and caregivers raising children in poverty may be less available due to work demands and less able to supervise and facilitate positive developmental opportunities for kids. (9)
Sleep, Nutrition, and Other Health Factors
There is no shortage of research regarding how poverty impacts basic health indicators in children. Living in poverty has been correlated with a number of negative health outcomes.
Children living in poverty have been found to have “shorter duration, poor quality, greater variability and greater incidence of clinical sleep disorders.” (10)
Without adequate sleep, children’s cognitive processing, academic achievement, behavioral regulation, and overall development are compromised.
Children living in poverty do not always have access to nutritious food, which can result in either malnutrition or obesity. (11)
Children living in poverty have higher rates of other negative health indicators that affect development, including asthma (12), and exposure to lead (13).
Complications related to asthma can result in decreased endurance and ability to participate in physical activities. And lead exposure has been correlated with developmental delays in children.
It’s clear that poverty has a significant and profound impact on childhood development. We are passionate about closing the gaps in motor skill development, cognitive development, academic achievement, and access to important developmental experiences for kids living in poverty. That’s why we felt strongly about partnering with Children International today.
Children International fights poverty in countries all over the world including Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and The United States. The organization knows and understands that the challenges it faces are difficult and significant, but it is committed to facing these challenges head on with bold and powerful solutions.
Children International invites anyone to join their work through sponsorship or donations. Sponsorships cost only $32/month and help to fund unique and innovative community centers, which serve as a safe haven to kids from dangerous environments and the setting for the delivery of life-changing programs and services.
Donations and sponsorships also help to provide a support team (doctors, dentists, volunteers, etc.), and forge a path out of poverty for the neediest kids. Donations of any size are welcome at any time.
Join us as we support Children International in their efforts to give all kids a chance by ensuring that they have a path out of poverty.
1 – Adolph, K. E., Vereijken, B., & Shrout, P. E. (2003). What changes in infant walking and why. Child Development, 74, 475-497.
2 – Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith. The Physical Play and Motor Development of Young Children: A Review of Literature and Implications for Practice. Center for Early Childhood Education. Eastern Connecticut State University.
3 – Wen, M., et al. (2013). Spatial Disparities in the Distribution of Parks and Green Spaces in the USA. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 45(1 Suppl): S18-S27.
4 – Fjørtoft, I. (2004). Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development. Children, Youth and Environments 14(2).
5 – Randolph, B. (2006). Children in the Compact City: Fairfield as a suburban case study. Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.
6 – Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. Working Families and Growing Kids: Caring for Children and Adolescents. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2003.
7 – Brown, W., McIver, K., Pfeiffer, K., Dowda, M., Addy, C., & Pate, R. (2009). Social and environmental factors associated with preschoolers’ nonsedentary physical activity. Child Development, 80(1), 45-58.
8 – Engle, P.L. & Black, M. M. (2008) The Effect of Poverty on Child Development and Educational Outcomes California. The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Volume 1136, Reducing the Impact of Poverty on Health and Human Development: Scientific Approaches. Pages 243–256.
9 – Heymann, J. (2000). What happens during and after school: Conditions faced by working parents living in poverty and their school-aged children. Journal of Children and Poverty. Issue 1.
10 – Buckhalt, J. & El-Sheikh, M. (2013). Sleep and poverty: Children from low-SES families have been found to have poor-quality sleep. The SES Indicator: American Psychological Association.
11 – Food Research and Action Center. Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Obesity.
12 – American Lung Association. Socioeconomic and Racial Asthma Disparities in Asthma.
13 – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Lead Poisoning.