Words and maps: Developmental changes in mental models of spatial information acquired from descriptions and depictions

David H. Uttal*, Joan A. Fisher, Holly A. Taylor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


People acquire spatial information from many sources, including maps, verbal descriptions, and navigating in the environment. The different sources present spatial information in different ways. For example, maps can show many spatial relations simultaneously, but in a description, each spatial relation must be presented sequentially. The present research investigated how these source differences influence the mental models that children and adults form of the presented information. In Experiment 1, 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds and adults learned the layout of a six-room space either from verbal descriptions or from a map. They then constructed the configuration and pointed to target locations. Participants who learned from the map performed significantly better than those who learned from the description. Ten-year-olds performed nearly as well as adults did. The 8-year-olds' mental models differed substantially from the older children's and adults' mental models. The younger children retained the sequential information but did not integrate the relations into a survey-like cognitive map. Experiment 2 demonstrated that viewing the shape of the configuration, without seeing the map in full, could facilitate 8-year-olds' use of the verbal information and their ability to integrate the locations. The results demonstrate developmental differences in the mental representation of spatial information from descriptions. In addition, the results reveal that maps and other graphic representations can facilitate children's spatial thinking by helping them to transcend the sequential nature of language and direct experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)221-235
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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