Vanessa Simmering, PhD

Title: Four-year-olds’ selective production of verbal cues predicts their spatial skills

Legend: (Top panel) Sample trials of spatial tasks children completed (A) mental transformations, (B) spatial analogies, (C) feature binding, and (D) picture rotation.

(Bottom left panel) Examples of the spatial scene description task trial types, in which children could use (A) three cues, color, size, or location, (B) two cues, color or location, (C) two cues, size or location, or (D) one cue, location, to describe the location of the mouse.

(Bottom right panel) The relation between children’s adaptation score—calculated from the number of helpful versus unhelpful cues they produced across trial types in the spatial scene description task—and their spatial composite score—reflecting their aggregate performance across the four spatial tasks. Adaptation scores predicted spatial skills above and beyond children’s spatial vocabulary and general verbal production abilities.

Citation: Miller, H.E., Vlach, H.A., & Simmering, V.R. (in press). Producing spatial words is not enough: Understanding the relation between language and spatial cognition. Child Development.

Abstract: Prior research has investigated the relation between children’s language and spatial cognition by assessing the quantity of children’s spatial word production, with limited attention to the context in which children use such words. This study tested whether 4-year-olds children’s (N = 41, primarily white middle-class) adaptive use of task-relevant language across contexts predicted their spatial skills. Children were presented with a spatial scene description task, four spatial tasks, and vocabulary assessments. Children’s adaptive use of task-relevant language was more predictive of their spatial skills than demographic and language factors (e.g., quantity of spatial words produced). These findings identify new links between language and spatial cognition and highlight the importance of understanding the quality, not just quantity, of children’s language use.

About the lab: In the Spatial Perception, Action, Cognition, and Embodiment (SPACE) Lab, we seek to understand how children and adults use visual memory for different purposes, and how they learn to adapt to their memory limitations. Through a combination of behavioral studies and computational modeling, we are investigating the types of brain changes that could produce improvements in children’s memory over development. We are particularly interested in understanding how children’s behavior changes as the demands of the tasks change, and whether we can leverage these effects of task to help children learn more quickly and use their knowledge more reliably when needed.

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