Temple Infant & Child Laboratory | Spatial Research
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Spatial Research

Spatial 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 (video): Newcombe, Nora. The development of navigation. Royal Institute of Navigation.


PRESENTATION (video): Newcombe, Nora. Affordances and representations: Understanding mental rotation, perspective taking, and spatial reorientation. Paul B. Baltes Lecture, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.


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

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).


POSTER: Bower, C., Zimmermann, L., Verdine, B., Foster, L., Islam, S., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019, March). Longitudinal Effects of Spatial Training on Preschoolers’ Spatial and Math Outcomes. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Baltimore, MD.


POSTER: Vu, L., Bower, C., Evans, N., Zimmermann, L., Verdine, B., Foster, L., Islam, S., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019, March). Growth Curve Modeling of Preschoolers’ Spatial Skills during Spatial Training. Poster to be presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Baltimore, MD.

Behavioral Study


Cognitive maps are a mental map of a physical environment which are useful for navigating, especially for finding shortcuts or new routes in familiar areas. The development of cognitive maps seems to take time and to show substantial individual differences. Recent work using Silcton, a desktop virtual reality navigation task, found that children’s performance on cognitive map building reaches adult-like levels by around 12 years old.


In a follow-up study, children came back to the lab three years later to re-test their navigation performance. Overall, there was significant improvement on all navigation measures. In particular, children were initially able to learn information about individual routes in the virtual environment at a quicker pace than between-routes. Reliability of cognitive map building performance was also low overtime. These finding suggests that children’s ability to form cognitive maps changes as they reach adolescence.


PAPER: Nazareth, A., Weisberg, S. M., Margulis, K., & Newcombe, N. S. (2018). Charting the development of cognitive mapping. Journal of experimental child psychology170, 86-106.


POSTER: Brucato, M., Nazareth, A., & Newcombe, N. S. (2019, October) Longitudinal Development of Cognitive Maps. Poster presented at the Cognitive Development Society, Louisville, KY.


Behavioral & fMRI Study


Building cognitive maps allows for flexibility in navigating the world around us. Having a mental reconstruction of the city you live in will help greatly in navigating from point A to point B and forming more efficient paths between locations through shortcuts. The development of navigation behavior extends from infancy through adolescence, but we know relatively little about the neural processes underlying this behavior in humans. In this new study, we aim to add a novel insight on how these processes form during childhood and are modified into adulthood using behavioral and MRI methods. We have created a virtual environment where children will navigate through by playing a scavenger hunt game. Additionally, our research includes a component that attempts to disentangle how spatial abilities map onto non-spatial contexts. In this game, kids will view child-friendly pictures on a screen and earn a prize for completing all the levels. With a novel spatial virtual navigation game and an innovative non-spatial game, we are excited to work with children from 8-12 years to learn more about how their brains work! If you are interested in participating in this study, please contact Kim Nguyen at kimvnguyen@temple.edu.