Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Megan Sauter shows seven-year-old Damian Franchere a map

For another experiment on spatial reasoning, researcher Megan Sauter shows seven-year-old Damian Franchere a map representing the six rooms in Uttal's lab maze.

David Uttal

Professor David Uttal, who is known for inventive research on how young children acquire knowledge, stresses the importance of spatial learning.

Field Museum Of Natural History
Photo Courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History

Uttal's research at the pueblo exhibit in the Field Museum's Crown Family PlayLab studies how young children learn best in a museum setting.

Mapping How Young Children Learn

By Marya Smith
David Uttal Experiment

It's no secret that when young children play, it's often serious business for them, helping them comprehend how the adult world works. What may be surprising is exactly how learning takes hold before kids ever enter a classroom.

David Uttal, professor of education and psychology, is known for inventive research on how young children acquire knowledge. As a skeptic about traditional views of early childhood learning, he believes we overemphasize reading and math and underemphasize spatial learning. Stressing the value of symbolic learning, he also challenges a strongly held view that children learn best by playing with concrete objects. With a fresh approach, Uttal works to create useful and theoretically grounded ways to help children learn.

An eye for spatial learning

Spatial learning has been a prime area of research for Uttal. "One of the most important goals of early childhood learning is mastery of several symbol systems, most notably writing and math, but also systems like computer icons, maps and musical notations," says Uttal.

Why does it matter? To begin with, spatial reasoning — or the ability to visualize objects and then transform them — is critical to many areas of learning. "It's never too early to introduce spatial reasoning concepts to young children to prepare them for the classroom," Uttal says. "For one thing, good instruction is increasingly visually based."

What's more, spatial reasoning is essential to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, according to Uttal. "Studies show that children who do well early with spatial skills tend to go on and do well in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," he says.

Throughout all of his research, Uttal maintains a passion about the importance of spatial intelligence in education, and he has been a leader in finding methods for improving this skill. Accordingly, he heads the Maps and Diagrams section of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC), a research center funded by the National Science Foundation. SILC brings together scientists and educators from a wide range of academic settings to study how spatial knowledge is acquired and how it can be improved.

Boosting spatial learning

"The good news is that spatial reasoning can be improved by a variety of methods," Uttal notes. "We're interested in how this happens."

For over two decades, Uttal has been studying the ways young children establish connections between a symbol (an object) and its reference (what it stands for), working primarily in laboratory situations using maps and photographs. Symbolic reasoning is an important aspect of learning, Uttal says. "It's one of the ways we can communicate with other people — it's part of being human."

In one experiment, Uttal created a group of six small playrooms within a lab room. Except for having a different toy animal, the rooms were identical and difficult to tell apart. The researchers wanted to determine if four-yearolds can understand how a map represents a symbolic space and use it to find a specific toy.

"We found that using maps not only helps children navigate unfamiliar spaces but also helps them develop their relational thinking," Uttal says. "This kind of reasoning is key to understanding concepts such as how different cities relate to one another, how the United States relates to other countries, and other spatial relations that continue to be important through the school years and into adulthood."

A fresh look at learning materials

Uttal has also been examining the pros and cons of using concrete materials like blocks and puzzles in the learning process. The emphasis on hands-on tools as being essential to learning has roots reaching back to the early part of the last century.

But Uttal is not convinced. He and other researchers are finding evidence that the traditional blanket endorsement of concrete materials might not fit every situation, particularly when learning symbolic reasoning. "Most parents feel good giving their children letter blocks or number magnets to play with because they assume they're educational, and that's often true," he says. "But we may have gone too far."

In fact, Uttal says, there are times when hands-on materials can be counter-productive. "For instance, it's been documented that the more we stress the physical properties of an object, as in using letter blocks as toys for young children, the less these kids understand that the toy is intended to stand for something else," he notes. "So when the goal is to master an abstract concept, such as the connection between an object and its symbol, concrete materials would not be the best choice."

Wait: don't toss that toy box

Should parents ditch all the letter and number toys in the playroom? Not at all, according to Uttal. "Hands-on learning materials have a role to play, depending on the situation," he says.

Another experiment with young children illustrates his point. Uttal and his research team created a set of games using letters as toys, such as blowing bubbles with the letter O and making stick figures out of other letters. They found that the games did not help the youngest kids in the group understand letters as symbols, but did foster language learning for them in other important ways.

"For instance, playing the games helped younger participants grasp some of the physical differences of certain letters, such as M and W and Z, which can be difficult," Uttal explains.

The conclusion: there's a time and place for different learning tools, depending on where a child is in his or her development and what the parent or preschool teacher is trying to achieve. "In other words, there's no single panacea or magic pill that solves everything," Uttal adds.

A day at the museum – how parents help kids learn

In another line of research, Uttal recently completed a study with the Crown Family PlayLab, a research project funded by the Spencer Foundation. An early childhood learning center at the Field Museum in Chicago, the PlayLab features a full-sized replica of a pueblo dwelling from the southwestern United States where visitors can try out daily tasks from another time and another culture, such as harvesting, grinding and cooking corn.

Working with kids and parents visiting the exhibit, the researchers studied how young children might best learn in a museum setting. They observed the ways children played with the displays (object manipulation) as well as how they interacted with their parents (the social part of the learning process). Data analysis for the study is still underway, but Uttal believes the findings will serve to empower parents in helping their children to learn.

"One preliminary finding is that the best learning seems to take place when there's a combination of the child playing independently with the museum exhibits and also receiving some guidance from an adult," he says. "Parents can support learning by guiding their children and asking the right questions. Some parents and museum educators worry about going too far, about not letting children learn on their own. But you can't assume they will learn just by playing with things either."

Whether they are learning with adults or on their own, in museums and schools or back at home, young children can be making critical connections. And researchers like David Uttal are trying to ensure that their learning is always leaping ahead.

Miss Frances, the Belle of Educational TV

By Marya Smith
Miss Frances
Photo From NBC - TV

Long before Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, there was Ding Dong School — and Miss Frances. Television was in its infancy when the late Frances Rappaport Horwich (PhD42) pioneered quality programming for the preschool set.

Horwich became the legendary Miss Frances in 1952 when her show first aired from a small Chicago studio, capturing its audience — and industry applause — almost immediately. After only six weeks, with millions of Baby Boomers tuning in, Ding Dong School went national on NBC-TV, and ran until 1964. The groundbreaking show also won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award its first year.

Five days a week, Miss Frances rang an oldfashioned school bell to open her 30-minute program, which she also produced. She effectively set the standard for channeling TV's potential into a learning tool for kids.

No special effects were required to keep viewers in thrall, thanks to her signature approach: Miss Frances talked directly to the children who were watching in their living rooms, speaking in a warm, low-key manner. Her show was interactive, with Miss Frances leading her young audience in creative activities using materials at hand such as pipe cleaners and sweet potatoes. She even offered gentle advice, including on hanging up coats and setting the table.

Miss Frances also devoted quality time to parents. For the last segment of every program, she invited parents to the TV set for a conference, speaking to them as partners so they could make the most of the show's activities with their children.

The former grade school teacher and head of Roosevelt University's education department was a lifelong advocate for parent-teacher cooperation. In fact, parent education was the topic of her Northwestern doctoral dissertation: a full decade before ringing in Ding Dong School she wrote, "There is a real need for teachers to understand more adequately the relationship between parents and their children."

With her TV presence, Miss Frances put her beliefs into action. She not only thought outside of the box, but she also turned America's ubiquitous television set into an enjoyable, successful learning center for families across the country.