Understanding Spatial Representations

Using Models

According to Piaget, children of about 7 years of age start to appreciate the model as a representation. Experimental studies in 1991 with children of ages between 2.5 and 3 years found that children appear to appreciate the correspondence between a room and a model at the age of 3 years, having more success when the room is familiar to them and when the model is a photograph or a drawing. Another study in the same year suggests that very young children recognize just unique objects and their representations in the models rather than fully appreciating the model as a representation. Other experiments in 1997 indicate that children from about the age of 3 are able to use a model to find a location. In 2000, a review study concludes that children after 3 years possess the idea that models are tools of thought, suggesting that the use of models by children needs initial support.

Using Aerial Photographs

Aerial photographs are considered means of introducing children to spatial representations. Without being abstract and symbolic representations as maps are, large scale photographs remind one of geographical space. By photo interpretation procedures, children can be introduced into the concept of looking at the Earth from above. The results of the rather few experimental studies with preschoolers using photographs are contradictory. In 1970, the results of the experiments with 5–7 year old children showed that all children were able to understand that the photograph was the view of a landscape from above, but they could recognize just a few features. In 1980, experiments with 3–5 year old children concluded that they were able to recognize many features on the photos. Contradictory results have been derived from studies with preschoolers in 1991. Very young children seemed to interpret successfully very large scale photographs of space familiar to them, as was found in two studies in 2002 and 2003. The results suggested that young children view aerial photographs as a collection of features and not as a representation of an area. In experiments in 1971 with older children of ages 6–11 years, it was concluded that below age 9, children had problems in recognizing features, and only the older ones of ages 9–11 years seemed able to identify many characteristics. Even then, they were able to identify mainly the familiar ones and the ones whose image in the photograph looks like their view from the ground. However, they find it difficult to identify the area presented on the photo. Difficulties seem to appear when using small scale photographs. An experimental study in 1983 showed that many students aged 16 years could not successfully relate small scale photographs and corresponding maps. The same results were found in another study in 1979, in which high school students aged 15–16 years had difficulties in relating oblique aerial photograph with the map. It has been argued in 2006 that more systematic experimental research is required on this issue.

Using Maps

In the context of the developmental approach to cartographic understanding, the understanding that a map is a spatial representation can be distinguished as accomplished at two levels. At one level, the so called holistic, children understand the relationship between the map as a whole and the whole of the real world space to which it refers. At another level, the so called componential, children understand the symbol–referent relationship for each individual symbol. At the componential level, two things have to be understood: the first one is the geometric correspondence between the position of each individual symbol on the map and the location of the referent feature in the real space. The second is the representational correspondence, which refers to the symbolic representation of feature characteristics as recorded in the legend.

Experimental studies in 1987 and 1996 suggest that children from about the age of 4 understand that maps represent spatial information, but it seems that they do not have a full understanding of the representational correspondence between the map and the represented space. As was found in a study in 1996, children about 8 years old think that the map is only a small scale map used for finding ways and unknown places. Gradually, older children understand that the term map includes many different kinds of spatial representations. At the componential level, there is evidence from experiments in 1979 that children from the age of 3 years can use information from a simple map in order to identify a location. Other experiments in 1989, 1989, and 1996 concluded that kindergarten children can indicate their own location on the map but have difficulty in locating other locations. Moreover, they have significant difficulties in location and orientation tasks when the map is unaligned to the environment that it represents. The orientation task using unaligned maps is difficult, and only children about 10–11 years old succeeded in it. Representational correspondence appears to be achieved by about 6 years of age, as indicated in experiments in 1997. Other studies in 1979 and 1994 give evidence that 4 year olds appear to be able to understand representational correspondence in the case of pictorial symbols. The lack of systematic investigation of early understanding of symbols has been mentioned in many recent literature reviews.