Geographic Learning In Children Research Paper

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1. Early Childhood Development And Geographic Learning

Most research on early childhood geographic learning has been concerned with the ability of the developing child to understand space, and in particular, to comprehend spatial location. Children begin to be capable of spatial perception—the perception of small-scale spaces they can see at once—shortly after birth. Not long thereafter, they begin to crawl around, and slightly later to toddle through rooms filled with obstacles that impede perception. It is at these slightly later ages that geographic learning really begins, when a child goes from merely perceiving to actively searching the environment. Between 12 and 18 months of age, children can find objects once seen and now hidden (by a screen, for example) from view. Children between 18 months and two years of age can also deal with ‘invisible displacements,’ in which a toy, for example, is not just concealed but ‘invisibly’ transported to another hiding place. Two-and three-year olds can carry out much more complicated searches. However, at these age levels most research has been limited to the scale of an ordinary room, or slightly larger (Matthews 1992).

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There is now strong evidence that children acquire basic map-reading skills and the ability to engage in certain aspects of map-reading somewhere between the ages of three and five (see Blades and Spencer 1990, DeLoache 1989, Newcombe and Huttenlocher 1992). Studies have focused on two general levels of spatial ability: (a) microor meso-spatial contexts—i.e., tablescale or room-scale representations (e.g., Cohen 1985), and (b) macro or geographical-scale environments. Micro-spatial cognition involves understanding spatial relationships among objects that can, for the most part, be directly perceived as themselves and at their own scale. For example, micro-spatial cognition is required to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Macrospatial cognition, on the other hand, involves representations at a perceptual scale of objects and object arrays that occupy much larger spaces in the ‘real world,’ objects that, together, would not ordinarily be perceived at once on the ground, for example, reading a map to navigate through a city.

The most interesting aspects of spatial development and geographic learning concern the ability of children to understand macro-spatial environments, which are large in extent, and their representation in the form of maps (Blades and Spencer 1990). Almost all research in this area has involved miniature representations of such environments in the form of aerial photos, maps, and modeled landscapes. At issue is how to ascertain very young children’s understanding of the connection between these miniature representations and full-scale geographic reality. Children younger than five have limited vocabularies, and efforts to use verbal responses as indices of this understanding have not been very successful.

However, ethnographic studies done in several cultures have begun to document the universality of the use of toys or natural objects to model large-scale environments (Blaut 1999, Stea et al. 1996). It has been noted that some three-and-a-half-year-old children are able to build model landscapes and to solve navigation problems on these landscapes. Such navigation problems involve getting from one place to another on the map in a ‘realistic’ manner, that is, by a route on the representation that would be reasonable in the ‘real world’. However, a series of studies have found that while some spatial skills (micro-spatial puzzle and block-building ability; macro-spatial navigation ability) are present as young as age three-and a-half, they do not necessarily appear and develop at the same rate. This indicates that while spatial skills are related, they likely reflect different dimensions of cognitive development. Beyond age four-and-a-half, a majority of children studied appear capable of the above tasks, including navigation.

Studies done with children in a number of cultures have concluded that five-year-olds can verbally identify objects in an aerial photograph at scales of from 1:1000 to 1:3000 with minimal errors (although attempts to identify landscape objects at scales larger than 1:10,000 do result in some errors of scale). Further, such children can trace ‘maps’ from these photos, and can use these maps to solve simple navigation problems.

Slightly older children, in kindergarten through second grade, are capable of drawing quite complex maps. While these maps are plan views, overall, children typically draw the elements of such maps in elevation rather than in plan (e.g. house facades instead of house roofs), leading to the conclusion on the part of some psychologists that these children are unable to ‘coordinate perspectives’. However, when seven-year-olds are asked to tell why they have drawn their maps in that way, they show full recognition that theirs is not a literal representation of an ‘airplane view’ of the world. On the contrary, they say that they are purposely trying to show what’s most interesting about each object: a house facade is obviously more interesting than the view of the same house from above. That this is not simply a failure to coordinate perspectives is further indicated by the fact that many maps drawn by adults in the Middle Ages had the same characteristics.

2. Theoretical Controversies Concerning Spatial Aspects Of Geographical Learning

In determining when children are ready for the introduction of geographic concepts in school, geographic education has been more concerned with the sequence of children’s development than with their learning, in a psychological sense. The dominant theoretical paradigm in geographic education is that provided by the noted theorist and researcher in child development, Jean Piaget. In Piaget’s view, all cognitive development, including spatial cognition, goes from lower to higher levels of conceptual and symbolic functioning, part of a more general set of competencies acquired in a stage wise, lock-step fashion (see Piaget and Inhelder 1956). Thus, such development is said to progress stepwise through four stages, which he termed sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational, loosely associated with certain age ranges. Children at the sensorimotor and preoperational stages view the environment in relation to themselves and their own actions. Thus, according to this developmental view, children begin to be capable of true geographic learning only upon reaching the concrete operational stage of development (Liben and Downs 1989). While Piaget stressed that his developmental sequence is to be measured in ‘stages, not ages,’ some influential educators, more comfortable with ages, have proposed that map concepts cannot be understood by children younger than seven.

An alternative theoretical perspective is termed ‘universal mapping’ (Stea et al. 1996). Universal mapping, while not directly challenging the general concept of developmental stages, suggests that the kinds of spatial skills that eventually result in the production and use of geographical maps transcend cultural differences and begin to appear very early in the life of the child. Universal mapping states that, throughout the development of the human species, people have had a need to construct mental re- presentations of the environment at a geographical scale. Comprehension of maps requires perspective taking ability, in particular, moving from a three- dimensional real-world perspective to a two-dimensional, micro-level perspective. Thus, the theory proposes that young children have a ‘natural’ ability to represent the world in symbolic form at a reduced scale, rotated to the overhead perspective. Some proponents of universal mapping theory in its strongest form suggest that children may have an inborn mapping acquisition device analogous to the language acquisition device proposed by the linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky.

There is still some question as to whether and in what way mapping skills and spatial development are related. Piagetian theory has been interpreted by many educators to imply that children are incapable of engaging in the form of geographic learning called mapping at school-entering age. Universal mapping suggests, to the contrary, that some geographic abilities are so fundamental that their mastery by pre- school children can form a base for the teaching of other subjects in school.

Deciding between these two theoretical positions has been made more difficult by marked differences in methodologies used by their respective proponents.

Studies have differed in dependence on verbal or nonverbal responses by children, interpretations of errors made in verbal responding, degree of generalization from results obtained in meso-scale (room- level) environments to macro-scale (geographical) environments, and widely divergent scales of material used in aerial photos studies, to name but a few. At present, it seems that while cognitive development certainly takes place, and probably in stages, this staged sequence is neither quite as stepwise nor as irreversible as originally proposed. It may be that transition between stages occurs earlier in the development of spatial abilities at the geographic scale than in other cognitive realms, indicating its importance to both human development in general and geographic learning in particular.

3. Geographic Learning, Geographic Education, And Future Directions

As children begin to master perspective taking and part–whole relations, they should become more adept at attending to elements that will aid in their learning map information. However, while learning about space at the geographical scale is one important aspect of geographical learning, learning about other characteristics of geographical environment, including its flora, fauna, landscapes, and geology, is also important. Thus, learning to map, while in many ways the keystone of geographic learning, is not all of it. With increased demand in US school systems to develop a systematic program of geography instruction, there is a need for standardized, cost-effective methods for delivering this information. Instruction via electronic media (e.g., videotapes, computer programs) can be both appealing and educational to young viewers. The success of such television shows as Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? provides one demonstration that programs can be produced which capture children’s attention and at the same time stretch the boundaries of their geographic knowledge.

Geography instruction at the primary school level usually involves, at least in part, the comprehension of pictographic information, in particular, learning the spatial locations and boundaries of continents and geo-political regions such as countries and states. Because of its inherent visual and spatial content, geography lends itself well to instruction via electronic media. In fact, the types of visual and spatial content that are included in televised instruction can determine how readily that information is encoded and later retrieved from memory. For example, the addition of unique visual images can serve as a mnemonic aid for learning geographic shapes. Recent studies have demonstrated that visual icons, such as the Blue Ridge Mountains in the shape of Virginia, provided strong recall cues for state shapes (see Pinon 1999). Similar studies have shown the facilitative effects of icons and imagery in recalling map content (see Webb et al. 1994).


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  2. Blaut J M 1999 Maps and spaces. The Professional Geographer 51: 510–15
  3. Cohen R (ed.) 1985 The Development of Spatial Cognition. Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ
  4. DeLoache J 1989 The development of representation in very young children. Ad anced in Child Development and Behavior 22: 1–39
  5. Liben L S, Downs R M 1989 Understanding maps as symbols: the development of maps concepts in children. Advances in Child Development and Behavior 22: 145–201
  6. Matthews M H 1992 Making Sense of Place. Barnes & Noble, Lanham, MD
  7. Newcombe N, Huttenlocher J 1992 Children’s early ability to solve perspective-taking problems. Developmental Psychology 28: 635–43
  8. Piaget J, Inhelder B 1956 The Child’s Conception of Space [trans. Langdon J F, Lunzer J L], Routledge, London
  9. Pinon M F 1999 Video imagery and children’s recall of televised geographic information: Affecting more than visual content. Journal of Instructional Psychology 26: 24–32
  10. Stea D, Blaut J M, Stephens J 1996 Mapping as a cultural universal. In: Portugali J (ed.) The Construction of Cogniti e Maps. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, pp. 345–60
  11. Webb J M, Saltz E D, McCarthy M T, Kealy W A 1994 Conjoint influence of maps and auded prose on children’s retrieval of instruction. Journal of Experimental Education 62: 195–208
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