A journal on child development released in November by the University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on children’s usage of spatial language. Extending previous studies, suggesting that a child’s spatial understanding is directly linked to their interest in math, science, technology, and engineering, researchers hypothesized that how a child describes space says a lot about how they comprehend it, thus adding a layer of complexity to former research. Specifically, this study focused on 4-year-olds and how they use words to describe spatial relationships.
Children participating in the study were given a series of images. In each image was a mouse, located in different positions relative to different objects. The children were asked to describe the location of the mouse. They were then scored on how relevant the words they used were to locating the object of interest. For example, if they used words that specifically describe an item the mouse was near, their scores would increase. If they tended to use words that describe an attribute that all the objects on the image have, their scores would decrease. One observation made by the head of the study, Hilary Miller, was that a lot of the children relied not only on spatial words, but also, and sometimes more, on other descriptive words that helped to set the scene. For example, the children would say that the mouse is on “the big table” or “the brown box”, “big” and “brown” being words not necessary to the identification of the objects, but perhaps helpful to the children to feel like they are more aptly expressing the image they are processing.
The children who scored higher on these image breakdown problems also tended to score higher on other spatial skill tests, ones more directly related to ability in STEM, as originally identified in prior studies. Miller concludes, “We think it’s attention to relevant information that is propelling them to perform better, and not their ability to say particular words.” She suggests that to diversify a child’s spatial vocabulary, parents should be more explicit in how they describe location. For example, instead of saying “there is your toy” they can say “your toy is on the blue table”, thus directing the child’s focus to relevant spatial entities. Miller and her team believe that taking these steps can help children develop different kinds of problem-solving skills.
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