Where in the world

Jan 30, 2008

Ever come out of a London Underground station and not known where you were? Then you spot a familiar landmark like the Tower of London and suddenly you have your bearings?

New research from the University of Bristol shows for the first time that global positioning systems technology (GPS) can be used to show how children as young as three find their way around. GPS, the technology used in sat-navs, is a navigation system based on satellites that allows a user with a receiver to determine precise coordinates for their location on the earth's surface.

Using things around us to regain our bearings is known as reorientation and the process has been widely studied in non-human animal species. More recent research, looking at the development of this ability in children, suggests that we do not accurately use landmarks to orient ourselves until about the age of six. However, all studies to date have taken place in artificial laboratory environments rather than the real world.

Now Dr Alastair Smith from the Department of Experimental Psychology and colleagues from his department and the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol have tested the ability of children aged between three and seven to orient themselves in the great outdoors. The results suggest that children as young as three use outdoor landmarks, like trees and buildings, to find their way around.

The tests took place in open parkland [Durdham Downs in Bristol] where the children had to remember where an object had been hidden. The children observed a sticker being placed beneath one of four buckets which were arranged in a square. In some trials the buckets were the same colour, in others they were different. After the sticker had been hidden the children were disorientated by being blindfolded and turned around until they no longer knew which way they were facing. The blindfold was then removed and the children went to the bucket where they thought the sticker was hidden. The experiment shows that the children could only have picked the correct bucket if they had used environmental landmarks. Performance was measured by attaching GPS receivers to the children, which allowed researchers to accurately track their movements.

All age groups performed better than they would have done if they had simply searched at random, which shows that they all used natural landmarks to guide their search. Accuracy was closely related to the nature of the search space. In particular, the bigger the test area, the more likely the children were to reorient themselves using natural landmarks. Performance was also improved when the buckets were different colours, although this was also affected by the size of the test area. These results suggest that even children as young as three use outdoor landmarks to find their way around. The scale of the environment, and the size and position of landmarks within it, also affects children’s sensitivity and preference for certain spatial cues over others.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Smith said:

‘This study demonstrates the importance of testing cognitive abilities in a variety of environments, rather than confining studies to the psychological laboratory. Here we see that young children have a better ability to orient themselves than we have previously thought. Using GPS to study these abilities is a novel approach and shows that there’s more to sat-nav than helping you find the right exit off the motorway. It could be a powerful tool in exploring how we all interact with the world around us.’

Source: University of Bristol

Explore further: Mothers don't speak so clearly to their babies

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Looking for the elevator? There's an app for that

Jun 28, 2012

(Phys.org) -- GPS has been a tremendously successful technology for positioning users in outdoor environments. But attaining GPS-like accuracy indoors has eluded telecommunication researchers for years.

High court to rule on TV indecency, GPS tracking

Jun 28, 2011

(AP) -- The Supreme Court has added a couple of high-profile constitutional challenges to its lineup of cases for next term: One looking at governmental regulation of television content and the other dealing with the authority ...

Where am I? How our brain works as a GPS device

Jan 09, 2009

We've all experienced the feeling of not knowing where we are. Being disoriented is not pleasant, and it can even be scary, but luckily for most of us, this sensation is temporary. The brain employs a number of tricks to ...

Recommended for you

Mothers don't speak so clearly to their babies

Jan 23, 2015

People have a distinctive way of talking to babies and small children: We speak more slowly, using a sing-song voice, and tend to use cutesy words like "tummy". While we might be inclined to think that we ...

Explainer: What is sexual fluidity?

Jan 23, 2015

Sexual preferences are not set in stone and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation the individual is in. This has been described as sexual fluidity. For example, if someone identifies as heterosexual but th ...

Lucky charms: When are superstitions used most?

Jan 23, 2015

It might be a lucky pair of socks, or a piece of jewelry; whatever the item, many people turn to a superstition or lucky charm to help achieve a goal. For instance, you used a specific avatar to win a game and now you see ...

Low-income boys fare worse in wealth's shadow

Jan 22, 2015

Low-income boys fare worse, not better, when they grow up alongside more affluent neighbors, according to new findings from Duke University. In fact, the greater the economic gap between the boys and their neighbors, the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.