Temple Infant & Child Laboratory | Space Research
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Space Research

Space Overview


The ability to navigate space is central to human cognition and is critical to our understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Young children and even infants possess abilities that indicate considerable spatial competence. Our research seeks to the answer the fundamental question of how young children represent and retain spatial features of the environment. Please click to the left to take a look at our current space studies! For a general overview, please see the presentation below.


PRESENTATION: Newcombe, Nora. How minds develop: Cutting the nativist knot. G. Stanley Hall Award Talk, Division 7, APA.

The Role of Geometry & Landmarks in Spatial Reorientation


As found in many animal species, young infants and children have a powerful sensitivity to the geometric properties of enclosing spaces. To investigate how children use geometry when they are disoriented, children are brought into an unmarked rectangular room (see diagram) to observe as an experimenter hides an object in one of four boxes located in the room’s corners. Children are then disorientated by the experimenter- (i.e. lifting them and spinning five times in the center of the enclosure, while the child closes his/her eyes). After disorientation children are encouraged to search for the hidden toy.


In this series of studies, we found that in an unmarked rectangular space, children divided their searches equally between the geometrically-identical corners (A-D and B-C), but avoided the two corners in which the relation of the long wall and the short wall is different from that of the correct corner (A-B and C-D). This kind of search pattern shows clearly that there has been coding of the geometric features of the environment. Although there is evidence that young children have this geometric sensitivity, it is not clear whether they can make use of additional featural information in searching for a hidden object. That is, it is not clear whether children can make use of environmental landmarks to search for a hidden object. For example, children may not be able to use a landmark such as a colored wall or toy to locate the hidden object. There are inconsistent findings with regard to whether very young children can consistently use landmarks to distinguish the correct corner from the diagonally opposite corner in a rectangular room. Previous research from our lab has indicated that children as young as 18 months could use featural information to choose between geometrically identical corners of a rectangular room. However, other research with 3-5-year olds using a very small room found that they do not use a colored wall to help determine the correct corner to search in the room.


The discrepancy of the findings about whether featural information is used accurately may have to do with environmental conditions. Using 3-year-olds and 5-year olds, current research is aimed at examining what factors influence children’s ability to integrate geometric information and featural information. It is possible that factors such as the size of the room, the size of the landmark, the position of the landmark, the stability of the landmark (i.e., whether it can move), and /or the role of action in the space, influences children’s ability to use featural information when searching. It is these potential factors that we are currently investigating in our lab.


PAPER: Newcombe, N.S., Ratliff, K.R., Shallcross, W.L. & Twyman, A.D. (2010). Young children’s use of features to reorient is more than just associative: Further evidence against a modular view of spatial processing. Developmental Science, 13, 213-220.


PAPER: Twyman, A.D. & Newcombe, N.S. (2010). Five reasons to doubt the existence of a geometric module. Cognitive Science, 34, 1315-1356.


PAPER Twyman, A., Friedman, A. & Spetch, M. L. (2007). Penetrating the Geometric Module: Catalyzing children’s use of landmarks. Developmental Psychology.


PAPER: Twyman, A. D. & Newcombe, N. S. (2009). Of mice (Mus musculus) and toddlers (Homo sapiens): Evidence for species-general spatial reorientation. Journal of Comparative Psychology.


PRESENTATION: Newcombe & Spelke. Starting Points and Change in Spatial Development: Contrasting Perspectives. Society for Research on Child Development Talk, April 2013.


PAPER: Twyman, A. D., Newcombe, N.S. & Gould, T.G. (2013). Malleability in the development of spatial reorientation. Developmental Psychobiology, 55, 243-255. DOI: 10.1002/dev.21017

Spatial Scaling


scaling-imgIn a series of studies, we are investigating the development and underlying mechanisms of children’s spatial scaling abilities. Spatial scaling is an important requirement for several spatial tasks (e.g., map use) and in many operations in mathematics or physics. We have recently started looking at forms of scaling interventions. Using puzzles & mazes to reinforce principles of spatial scaling in a small group setting, we are examining whether preschoolers improve in overall scaling and in the types of scaling errors they make. On an individual level, we are also looking at whether including grid lines, thereby creating more categories for the children, will improve their scaling.


We have also started to pursue the question of whether children’s understanding of spatial proportions is related to what they have learned about fractions in school. The results of this study will tell us more about the cognitive foundations of fraction understanding, and may therefore have practical implications on how fractions will be taught in school. This is especially important if one bears in mind that the early understanding of fractions was recently found to be a predictor of later understanding of higher mathematics.


PAPER: Frick, A. & Newcombe, N. (2012). Getting the big picture: Development of spatial scaling abilities. Cognitive Development, 27, 270-282.


We recently conducted an experiment to examine scaling ability, where children were asked to locate a star, hidden under a piece of a large, floor-sized puzzle. To locate the star, children were given a series of maps that indicated the star’s location. The maps varied in size – small and large – to test how well children could mentally enlarge them to match the size of the floor puzzle, and thus, facilitate search attempts. Using a similar task, previous studies have shown that preschoolers’ performance declines as the map decreases in size, so researchers expected to see similar results with elementary-aged children. Basically, because smaller maps require more “mental enlargement,” they are harder to use, and children are less accurate in their search attempts. Researchers tested children in grades K-2, and found that the size of the map only had an effect for Kindergarteners – that is, Kindergarteners were significantly more likely to find the star with the larger maps than with the smaller maps. However, when we break up performance to look at the first half and second half of the task, we find that the children improve on these difficult items, and become just as good at using the larger maps as the smaller maps. This finding indicates that children’s scaling ability improves with age, but also that practice and experience can improve children’s scaling ability as well.  We are now looking at whether we see improvement when we make the game a bit more challenging, thus giving more room for children to improve. We are also looking at whether they learn more about scaling when the spaces are broken up with color, like in a checkerboard. Researchers also found that children’s scaling ability was related to their numeric knowledge. This relationship is important because it means that numeric knowledge can be enhanced with scaling games, like the one used in the current study. Games, such as puzzles, induce mental scaling because they require the child to construct a puzzle from a much smaller representation – the picture on the box. In sum, playing games, such as puzzles and map-search tasks, can be a fun way to enhance your child’s spatial thinking at home, which may enhance his or her mathematic performance in the classroom.

Hitting the Slopes: The strength of gradient cues in child navigation

Holmes, Newcombe, Nardi, & Weisberg


Figure 1: Exterior of Artificial Environment

Figure 1: Exterior of Artificial Environment

How do we know where we are? How do we get from one place to another? To successfully navigate, humans and animals must accurately encode external cues in the surrounding environment. For human adults and many animal species, slope is highly salient cue for navigation. However, human adults exhibit significant variability in performance (Nardi et al., 2011, 2012). Specifically, when slope is the only available cue indicating the location of a hidden target, men notice and effectively use the slope significantly more than women (Nardi et al., 2011).


We are currently finishing up our study of children’s use of slope! So far, our findings indicate that in the presence of slope, children are significantly more likely to locate a hidden target- although boys significantly outperform girls. Furthermore, it appears that the ability to notice the slope (termed “slope recognition”), not sex per se, may be driving this gap in performance. Because boys were significantly more likely than girls to notice the slope, slope recognition prior to testing would affect the child’s performance. Boys’ and girls’ performance did not significantly differ when both sexes noticed, or did not notice, the slope of the room. Additionally children who notice the slope on their own perform better than those who have been shown that this cue is present. Thus, prompted slope recognition may not be enough, as the ability to notice the slope on one’s own may be the true predictive factor of performance in a slope reorientation paradigm.


So, what factors may lead to greater slope salience for males? There could be a variety of reasons, one of which is exposure to slope. Toys that are traditionally marketed toward boys tend to elicit movement, and often incorporate sloped terrains (e.g., sports are played on non-uniform fields, toy cars come with multi-level ramps, etc.), potentially sharpening the kinesthetic, vestibular, and visual sensory systems’ ability to perceive slope (Liss, 1983). This previous experience with sloped terrains might hone their ability to perceive slope at varying degrees.


Figure 2: Interior

Figure 2: Interior



Virtual Silcton


How do children and adolescents learn to navigate in their world? Are there reasons some of us are more likely to get lost or stick to familiar routes, while others can form cognitive maps? In this study, older children explore a virtual environment on a computer screen, learning the names and locations of different buildings, and are then asked to recall what they saw in a by pointing to various location and creating a map of what they saw. We are excited to learn more about adolescents’ use of cognitive maps to navigate their world.

Spatial Instruction in Preschool


Spatial skills are essential for everyday functioning in the world (e.g., packing a car trunk, cutting pizza slices), as well as for success in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In collaboration with researchers at the University of Delaware, we are studying how to best help preschoolers get an early start on building these important skills.


Over the course of three studies, we are examining the effectiveness of various techniques that an adult might use to teach spatial skills to preschoolers: (1) modeling & feedback, (2) gesture, or (3) spatial language. Additionally, we are interested in observing how the effectiveness of these approaches is influenced by different instructional delivery methods: digital (e.g., using an app on a tablet computer) versus concrete materials (e.g., using foam shapes that can be manipulated by hand). With the increasing use of digital technologies in modern society, it is important to understand the circumstances in which these technologies are better, worse, or just as good as more traditional teaching tools. In each study, we work with children over the course of seven weeks. In the first week, researchers assess the children’s baseline spatial and mathematics skills, as well as their vocabulary knowledge. During the following five weeks, children are taught about spatial concepts using one of the three approaches (modeling & feedback, gesture, or spatial language) and one of the two delivery methods (digital or concrete). After the period of training is over, we re-assess the children’s spatial, mathematics, and vocabulary skills to examine what effect, if any, the instruction had on their abilities.


In the long term, we believe that identifying the most effective approaches to spatial instruction will allow the creation of interventions that will improve children’s spatial thinking and better prepare them for success in cutting those pizzas, as well as formal STEM pursuits. This research is supported by a federal grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).