Underestimating children part 231: at what age can children learn how to read maps?

Different readers of our book The Psychology of Great Teaching, told us that one of the key lessons they learned while reading was that we often underestimate what children can do. This new study is another example, as the researchers have found that children start to develop the basic skills that underlie map reading at just four! The study involved 175 two to five-year-olds. It reveals that four-year-olds can use a scale model to find things in the real world. Therefore the researchers used a classic hiding game and compared the results using a room and its scale model with preschool children’s abstract spatial ability and understanding of mental representation.

From the press release:

A new study published today reveals that they become able to use a scale model to find things in the real world.

The study involved 175 two to five-year-olds and is the largest of its kind.

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

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.

“So we played a hiding game with 175 children aged between two and five years old. We showed them a sticker hidden in a model of a room, and then they had to look for another sticker in the ‘same place’ in another model of the room.

“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.

“This means that children start to develop the basic skills that underly 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,” he added.

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

Previous research had 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,” added Dr Doherty.

Abstract of the study:

We examine the long-standing claim that understanding relational correspondence is a general component of representational understanding. Two experiments with 175 preschool children located in Norwich, United Kingdom, examined the use of a scale model comparing performances on a “copy” task, measuring abstract spatial arrangement ability, and the false belief task. Consistent with previous studies, younger children performed well in scale model trials when objects were unique (e.g., one cupboard) but poorly at distinguishing objects using spatial layout (one of three identical chairs). Performance was specifically associated with Copy task but not False Belief performance. Emphasizing the representational relation between the model and the room was ineffective. We find no evidence for understanding relational correspondence as a general component of representational understanding.

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