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Father playing with toddler.

Learning to Talk About Spatial Relationships

The ball is on the table; the toy is in the box; the shoe is on the foot. In order to talk about spatial relationships like these, children first need to acquire spatial language.

“Between 12 months and 5 years is an active time for infants’ and children’s spatial language development,” says Psychology Professor Laura Lakusta. “Research suggests that by 10 weeks, infants have an understanding of spatial configurations. Further, children understand and produce spatial terms before age 2. Spatial language continues to develop into early childhood.”

Lakusta’s project, “Interactions Between Language and Cognition in the Early Acquisition of Spatial Language,” was recently awarded a three-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation Research in Undergraduate Institutions, or RUI, grant.

Lakusta hopes her project will shed new light on the critical development of early spatial language skills. “We know that language development of spatial terms is relevant for later academic achievement, particularly in STEM-related disciplines, but our understanding is far from complete,” explains Lakusta.

Principal Investigator Lakusta and colleague Barbara Landau from Johns Hopkins University, will test 340 infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 4 1/2 years, their parents and 16 college students. One study will test whether children think that a toy placed on top or on the side of a box are both instances of “support” and can be described with the term “on.”

“Understanding of spatial prepositions, like ‘on,’ is pertinent to children’s understanding of STEM disciplines like math,” Lakusta says.

Other experiments look at how parents talk about support to their children and explore the connection between parental input and child language development.

Lakusta’s project will also allow students to gain research experience in participant testing, data interpretation, publishing and presenting findings.