Four-year-olds possess basic map-reading skill

Children develop spatial intelligence from the age of four, study finds

The University of East Anglia researchers carried out a study in which 175 children, aged between 2 and five, were asked to play a hiding game. Getty
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New research from the University of East Anglia suggests children begin developing the basic skills underlying map reading from the age of four.

The study, which is the largest of its kind, involved 175 children aged between two and five in a hiding game.

Researchers found that four-year-olds have spatial intelligence which enables them to use a scale model to find things in the real world, a precursor to map reading.

Lead researcher Dr Martin Doherty from UEA’s School of Psychology said: “We wanted to find out when children can use scale models or maps to learn things about the world”.

The hiding game consisted of showing the children a sticker hidden in a model of a room, and then asking them to locate another sticker in the same position in a different model of the same room.

Dr Doherty said: “The two and three-year-olds were not able to recognise that the spatial arrangements in the model rooms were the same. But from about four years old, they were able to use one model room as a guide to finding the object in the other.”

Researchers say map-reading may be cognitively simpler than previously thought. PA

“This means that children start to develop the basic skills that underlie map reading from the age of four. Based on these findings, we predict children can read simple maps from around the age of four.

“Extending our methods to maps would help resolve a controversial developmental question.”

The study found that children's understanding of spatial correspondence develops in a sequence: object similarity, item-to-item correspondence, and spatial correspondence.

However, the reasons why these stages emerge at specific ages are unclear, and further research is needed to determine whether this developmental sequence is common to scale models and maps.

The findings suggest this new spatial ability potentially lays the foundations for maths and science skills.

The study resolves a debate about whether understanding models is a representational ability or a spatial one.

A previous research claimed that understanding models showed an understanding of representation.

But the UEA team found that it is about understanding spatial layout, and that complex concepts like representation were not involved.

“This tells us that map-reading may be cognitively simpler than previously thought,” Dr Doherty said.

The findings suggest that this new spatial ability potentially lays the foundations for maths and science skills.

Updated: March 09, 2023, 9:21 AM