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For me it doesn’t occur all that often, but I know of friends and family members who find themselves in unfamiliar parts of town more than once in a while and the feeling can be either mildly amusing, or very unsettling. An interesting presentation (1) at the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference in California sheds light on the neurological explanation of what is known as spatial cognition, or an organized knowledge of objects including oneself in a given space (2). I’ll save the biological jargon for the speaker in the video (Neil Burgess), but I found it interesting how he and other scientists were able to connect brain activity and the firing of neurons to specific spatial locations. If you’re like me, however, you want to know what exactly that means as a practical application of geography, which is full of concepts like “positioning” and “spatial awareness.”
When we’re young, as early as infancy, we develop our own sense of spatial awareness. The act of crawling toward our caregivers includes observing the direction, distance, and location of them and how those factors change as we move. Of course, babies can’t quantify the distance covered or in which cardinal direction they might be crawling toward, but they do acquire basic environmental perception skills. These skills are not innate, but learned gradually throughout childhood as youth learn that certain stimuli require certain movements–such as catching a ball by surprise.
Teaching kids to become more responsive to their environment, as well as helping them learn to have a keen eye for their location in specific places, can be very beneficial during early development and throughout life. A delivery driver with a poor sense of spatial awareness would have trouble effectively navigating city routes with ease, for example, and would perhaps want to consider a career change. So how do we promote an increased sense of spatial awareness in children?
The easiest way to promote spatial awareness is to allow kids to explore their environment on their own (2), with appropriate supervision. Activities such as crawling and walking around obstacles and playgrounds will come naturally, but there are a few additional ways to encourage good spatial awareness in children (and others, for that matter):
- Discuss locations of specific objects or people at that very moment. If a child can recall where a certain toy belongs or where to find the juice, he or she will have a good chance of expanding that memory to larger areas in the outside world.
- When discussing objects’ locations, put less emphasis on exact location, and more emphasis on judging whether the object or area in mind is closer to or farther from the child’s current position by using comparative terms.
- Talk about the relationship of an object to its surroundings and how children can use that reference information to easily return to a spot. For instance, the juice is in the fridge, or the blanket is in the laundry bin.
- Once children are comfortable with judging relative locations of objects, make a game out of measuring distances in realistic settings i.e. if the power goes out, take 20 steps down the hall to the exit.
- In addition to measuring distances, include specific directions when asking a child to go to a certain place. Everyone knows how difficult it can be to follow a set of directions longer than 3 or 4 steps, but the earlier children can be trained to effectively use directions, the more likely they will be to ask for and successfully use them in the future.
Our human ancestors learned to navigate landscapes full of obstacles and hazards, sometimes relying only on their memories and logic to do so. While new technologies make navigating somewhat less of a cognitive challenge, living in the modern world still requires a good sense of spatial awareness. It’s vitally important that our children engage their physical environment in fun and efficient ways to develop these skills.
Image from RareMaps.com.