Why understanding matters

Effective design begins with understanding

To improve the living conditions and well-being of young children, their caregivers and pregnant women in a specific context, it is necessary to understand their constraints and needs, as well as their experience of the home, neighbourhood, and city environment. An approach that works in one context may not be successful in another. While we can compare and learn lessons from a range of experiences and examples, effective design that changes long-term behaviour is rooted in the holistic understanding of the local context.

Follow the steps below to put this into practice!
“A tokenistic approach to consultation can often be worse than no consultation at all”
– Adrian Voce OBE, President of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities

UNDERSTAND: life-cycle steps

Step 1

Brief development

Define your project scope using the Proximity of Care Framework

Before beginning your project, first establish your aims. The four dimensions of the Proximity of Care Framework can help you define what you are trying to achieve, in terms of the health, protection, stimulation and support of young children, caregivers and pregnant women. The dimensions – as well as the goals that contribute towards achieving them – can also help guide your approach to understanding your target location and its relevant stakeholders, by shaping your desk research, site visits and early stakeholder engagement.


Snapshot: Proximity of Care is a slide deck that can give you a quick overview of the Proximity of Care framework.

The “Proximity of Care and our work” activity will help you to self-assess your understanding of the intersections of urban systems and early childhood development and identify the gaps and opportunities that you want to focus on in your projects.

This tool can support you in thinking about the main components of a project brief through the Proximity of Care framework.

A visual walk through the main sets of benefits that child and family-focused projects can bring for the whole city and for all.


Discover ideas and guidance for taking action on early years development at municipal and national level through the Early Years Starter Kit by Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Step 2

Stakeholder mapping and strategy

Identify stakeholders and community to engage with

Identify and map the different stakeholders that relate to your project and its location and engage with them at the earliest possible opportunity, ideally from the Step 1 (Brief development). Be open to re-defining and enhancing your objectives developed in Step 1 to reflect the needs, priorities, and other inputs of stakeholders. This is crucial in understanding the multiple people, organisations and perspectives involved, and to design and implement projects that have a lasting impact. 

Include the groups you seek to engage with, for example young children, their caregivers, pregnant women and the schools and nurseries they might use. Also consider wider community groups, institutional and technical stakeholders, as well as potential investor and practitioner partners.

Develop a stakeholder engagement strategy based on meaningful participation throughout the project process, including with people who you expect to oppose your plans. You can find out more about how to develop the different elements of an engagement and advocacy strategy in the Influence stage of the guide.


Stakeholder database is a template for listing all potential stakeholders.

Stakeholder prioritisation is a template that can help you identify priority groups or individuals to engage with by thinking about their need for and influence on a project.

This activity will help you to connect with groups of stakeholders that you may have left out of your engagement plan.


Read how Estudio +1 in Brazil discovered that to achieve safe environments for women to breastfeed in Jurujuba, they had to involve the men within the community too.

Read how the Municipality of Thessaloniki developed action plans to embed children’s rights into urban decision-making by identifying and networking with stakeholders from a wide range of sectors.

Step 3

Desk-based baseline

Understand your project site and community

Conduct a thorough baseline assessment of your site to understand the context and the community, starting with secondary desk-based research. This could include policy reports, census and statistical data, surveys, maps, academic articles, news articles, photos, videos or any other material that provides insight to your project location. Use gender and age disaggregated data where possible and identify areas in which you need to collect more information. Use the dimensions of the Proximity of Care Framework to structure your baseline and complement any other frameworks or models that you normally use for baseline analysis. By feeding your findings into the framework tool, and adapting these to your local context, you will be able to build a holistic view from the outset and quickly start to identify and prioritise challenges and opportunities to improve early childhood development. Gaps in information or understanding within the secondary data available can be addressed through your site visit and stakeholder engagement activities outlined in the next steps.


Proximity of Care Assessment Framework tool is a comprehensive list of various indicators that can guide your desk research.


See the Proximity of Care Assessment Framework in action through examples of Site Assessment Reports developed by our partners in Cape Town, South Africa (VPUU); Azraq, Jordan (Civic); Nairobi, Kenya (KDI); and El Mina, Lebanon (Catalytic Action).

Find deeper insights into how the Proximity of Care Assessment Framework can help you embed a child-centred focus into your baseline analysis. Explore the lessons and experiences from our partners in Montevideo, Uruguay (Espacio Lúdico); Jurujuba, Brazil (Estudio +1); and Valdivia, Chile (Ciudad Emergente).

Step 4

Site visit

Visit the project location to integrate your baseline

To validate insights gained from your research and fill the identified knowledge gaps, visit the location of your project and use a mixture of methods such as structured observation, transect walks and informal conversations to systematically collect information and record views. Use methods to engage young children, their caregivers and pregnant women, and map how they relate and respond to different opportunities and challenges. Keep developing your understanding of how the wider networks and dynamics intersect with the home, neighbourhood and city experience in your project location, and update your baseline analysis with any new insights. If possible, discuss with a local partner the possibility for early engagements with identified decision-makers or community influencers, to begin forming relationships with key community members and leaders who could facilitate engagement with other groups. It would also be useful to begin considering if there are certain behaviours within the community that, if changed, could bring positive impacts to children, caregivers and pregnant women. It would also be important to consider how these behaviours could be measured to assess impact following the implementation stage.


Transect walk sheet is a tool for re-thinking the transect walk method through the Proximity of Care Framework.

This tool advises on how to map potential intervention sites, and how to choose the one in which a new project could have the greatest impact.


See how La Reconquista Peatonal in Chile developed a methodology to make young girl’s points of view more visible, through the documentation of transect walks along their everyday walking routes.

See how the local government of the city of Oslo developed a smartphone app called The Traffic Agent that turns the collection of road safety data into a game, with the aim of encouraging children to walk and cycle to school. This example shows how a site visit and analysis can become a project itself.

See the Toolkit – For measuring urban experiences of young children by Urban95 and Gehl that offers practical tools for site observation, primary data collection and analysis.
Pedestrians First is a tool that offers practical indicators for measuring walkability for babies, toddlers, their caregivers and everyone in cities.
The Reverse Periscope Companion Guide is a do-it-yourself instruction that will help you experience the sightlines, hazards, uncertainties, and unique and surprising aspects of the world from a 95cm height.

Step 5

Stakeholder engagement and consultation

Engage and communicate with the project community and stakeholders

Based on the insights from your baseline and stakeholder mapping, organise focussed engagements with key stakeholders and community groups. Use these engagements to validate your existing knowledge, address information gaps, and gain additional insights into the challenges and opportunities that may exist within your project location. Use a variety of methods such as focus groups, key informant interviews, participatory mapping workshops, walking tours, informal conversations and digital tools to engage effectively with different stakeholders. Ensure methods are orientated towards co-creating knowledge with each participant, to ensure findings are based upon the experiences, perspectives and needs of those who live and work in the area. Pay attention to which methods of communication, co-creation and design have been the most successful in the past. Take advantage of pre-existing activities or public holidays in the local area, and consider more playful, interactive and stimulating activities to engage with young children to ensure their experiences and insights are included. 


Survey guide outlines a structure for a survey that is based on the Proximity of Care Framework. You can use this tool as a starting point and adapt it to your project.

Photo contest tool can support you in organising this type of exploratory activity with children and/or caregivers.

This tool can be used to organise an Assessment workshop with children, their caregivers, local educators, and community members to understand their perceptions (including needs and opportunities) about their neighbourhood, to inform the design of possible child and family-friendly interventions.

Consent form is a template that you could directly adapt to use in your project. It is also a reflection on the ethical practice in your assessment and design, and different aspects of projects that could impose ethical risk to participants.

This is a powerful tool that can be best used to offer insight into the day-to-day life of young children, caregivers and pregnant women.

You can use this tool to discuss the patterns, strategies and difficulties of care, with caregivers in a specific location. This tool should be used in the initial, discovery stage of a project.


Explore the experiences of our partners employing child-centred engagement methodologies in Montevideo, Uruguay (Espacio Lúdico); Jurujuba, Brazil (Estudio +1) ; and Valdivia, Chile (Ciudad Emergente).

Explore new forms of promoting child engagement through technology and apps like the City of Maputo in Mozambique, in partnership with UNICEF and UN Habitat, supporting children to digitally map their neighbourhood to identify points of interest or challenges.

Step 6

Documenting and knowledge sharing

Define challenges and opportunities and share for validation

Consolidate the findings from the baseline assessment, initial site visit, and stakeholder engagements. Bring together all identified opportunities and challenges and consider which could be prioritised, combined, or if possible, addressed simultaneously. You can use the Proximity of Care Framework and its dimensions (health, protection, stimulation and support) to help you in this process. Document your findings in a summary report and share it with relevant stakeholders to either continue receiving feedback, to generate awareness about your project, or to influence certain groups and find additional support and collaboration. To learn more about advocacy strategies visit the Influence section.


This tool can be used to structure the data collected and analysed during the Understand phase, and to consolidate key findings related to the challenges and opportunities to early childhood development in the project site.


Check examples of the Proximity of Care Framework in action through the Site Assessment Reports developed by our partners in Jurujuba and El Mina.

Step 7

Measuring impact

Develop a monitoring, evaluation and learning framework to assess the impact of your project

Based on the insights gained through the baseline, decide upon a series of indicators to measure and monitor the impact of your project. Use the Proximity of Care Framework to help identify these indicators, as well to complement other MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning) tools from within your organisation or wider policy frameworks. Ensure to include behavioural change indicators. This will enable you to monitor and measure the impact of your project, extract lessons learned, and provide insights to your own team to iterate and improve your design and inform future projects. It will also provide ongoing evidence of progress and impact to wider stakeholders such as investors or elected leaders.


This tool guides you through thinking about evaluating the progress and success of your project.

Theory of change template is designed to help you think about behaviours that you aim to change in a home, neighbourhood or city, and in relation to the Proximity of Care Framework. This activity can be done within the project team, or with stakeholder groups you are working with.


Check the Metric Framework developed by Playful Learning Landscapes and Brookings Institute for measuring the outcomes of playful learning in public and shared spaces.

Check the tool Understanding Impact by KABOOM! and Gehl, an evaluation study of play spaces that can inspire you to create your own evaluation framework.

Read how the Urban Toys initiative in Mexico City monitored the construction, implementation and impact of the interventions, to generate evidence of the benefits of play in urban environments, with the ultimate goal of influencing the creation of new public policies.

Have a look at the Early Childhood Matters issue (2022) on behaviour change.

Explore the IDEAS Impact Framework on Theory of Change implementation for early childhood development.

Tailored Advice: UNDERSTAND

Click the icons below to read our tailored advice.
City authorities
  • Identify how the Proximity of Care Framework and the 10 guiding principles relate to your strategies, policies or a specific project. Explore the points of alignment to reinforce the significance of improving your work for young children, caregivers and pregnant women.
  • Consider collaborating with a local school or nursery, to visit the project location with children of different age. Their perspective might significantly contribute to your ideas and plans.
  • Set realistic expectations during your engagements with decision makers and the community about the process, funding and what could be delivered.
  • Consider connecting challenges and opportunities (identified in relation to your project) with local policy frameworks or strategy, to demonstrate to other officials or leaders within a municipality how a child-friendly approach could contribute towards wider policy aims.
  • Aim to link up the project KPIs to other projects or strategies, in order to compare performance across different projects and identify areas for improvement.
Urban practitioners
  • Try to involve organisations that are already working within the project community, to build upon the relationships they have already created and identify potential barriers to engaging with community members. Consider attending local events and activities to meet different community members and ensure enough time and budget to continue engaging throughout your project.
  • Make use of your design skills to spatially map useful information across your project location. This can make your baseline findings understandable to non-specialist community members and could also provide materials to be used in engagement workshops later on. Visual skills are a powerful tool for interdisciplinary collaborations.
  • Get creative with your site visit and consider methods such as transect walks or photography which could include young children. Consider organising a walking tour with a local school, and make sure to document the entire process to feed into your baseline. Consider the network of infrastructure used by children and caregivers, including beyond playgrounds and school, to identify other connected and multifunctional community spaces.
  • Integrate your experience of the built environment into the methods you use to engage stakeholders and communities. For example, you can run ‘know your neighbourhood’ modelling workshop with young children using playful materials. Design methods can be use in the Understand phase too.
  • Highlight in the report the insights gained from the local community through your site visit and initial engagements. This will demonstrate the importance of the involvement of the community and their influence on any future design and implementation.
  • In addition to more traditional KPIs, consider identifying behavioural change indicators which your concept design might try to positively effect. This innovative approach could provide helpful evidence to promote your project to institutional or private stakeholders, and open pathways for additional funding and support.
Early childhood development practitioners
  • Identify points of alignment and common entry points between the Proximity of Care Framework and the needs, programmes or strategies targeting young children, pregnant women and caregivers included in health, education, family and social sector and policies. Assess how this project can contribute to achieve those goals.
  • Connect with Early Childhood Care and Education services with a strong presence in the community to inform and support the participatory process with children. They can help with appropriate methodologies for engaging young children or support in executing the participatory process themselves.
  • Make sure that data collection around young children include commonly accepted variables on age grouping, gender, disabilities and other variables relevant for the community, and that it contributes to understanding of daily routines and behaviours.
  • This phase should be about highlighting challenges and opportunities for urban projects or interventions to contribute to Early Childhood Development, child, maternal and social goals of the city. Promote cross-sectoral collaboration to implement these.
  • Look at your existing policies or ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) objectives alongside the Proximity of Care Framework and identify where they align with improving the dimensions of health, protection, stimulation and support for young children, caregivers and pregnant women. This will help win internal support for the aims and vision for a project.
  • Allocate adequate resources to conduct a comprehensive baseline analysis and integrate your understanding of the project location into the wider context of the neighbourhood or city to identify opportunities at different levels of proximity to young children, caregivers and pregnant women. Use the Proximity of Care Framework to gain a holistic understanding of your project context and community.
  • Plan for the assessment of the perspective of babies, toddlers, caregivers and pregnant women in your focus location. Consider consulting with an Early Childhood Development practitioner about the child and family-friendly principles or engagement techniques that could inform the development .
  • Plan for the assessment of the perspective of babies, toddlers, caregivers and pregnant women in your focus location. Consider consulting with an Early Childhood Development practitioner about the child and family-friendly principles or engagement techniques that could inform the development .
  • Consider incorporating ESG metrics, alongside financial measure and other relevant market indicators, to showcase the social impact of your project to internal boards, shareholders and investors.
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