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Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva M. (2009). How toddlers represent enclosed spaces. Cognitive Science, 27, 749-766.






  author =      {Huttenlocher, Jannellen and Vasilyeva, Marina},

  title =       {How toddlers represent enclosed spaces},

  journal =     {Cognitive Science},

  year =        {2003},

  volume =      {27},

  pages =       {749--766}



Author of the summary: Jun Sakiyama, 2009, jsakiyam@connect.carleton.ca


Cite this paper for:


·         There is yet to be a unified understanding of how spatial representations work for humans and animals

·         Visual cues and their relation to spatial recognition

·         Perspective in regards to spatial recognition

·         Effects of disorientation in object locating tasks

·         Theory of spatial development [p.750]

·         Disorienting animals (rats) and ability to locate objects [p.751]

·         Space-centered conceptualization [p.751]

·         Geometrical cues for spatial representation and locating objects [p.752]

·         Perseveration effects [p.756]

·         Isosceles triangle room experiment

·         Rectangular room experiment

·         Viewers position – inside vs. Outside perspective

·         Spatial recognition by - relationship among its parts [p.757]


Spatial cognition and how organisms store spatial representations are still vaguely defined and understood.

Two views of spatial representations: metric and relative stimuli in the environment, and fragmented.

“Piaget believed that representations of space are not conceptualized independently of the observer” [p.750] Distance and length are not stored as initial stimuli. These claims would lead to children having very bad perception and identification of their surroundings.

Studies show young children use visual cues such as distance of an object or the shape to determine location in a closed area. (Huttenlocher, Newcombe, & Sandberg. 1994)

Their experiment shows that initial viewing position does not dictate determining an object in a closed area. They also showed that children use distance and length to encode locations of objects.

Spelke provides evidence that children are capable of encoding lengths of walls and using the geometry of the room to locate objects in space. Even after disorientation the subjects are able to recall the geometry of the space.  This is done by referencing the varying lengths of the walls of the rectangular room, with which they are able to distinguish between the varying corners.

Disorientation tasks and possible reasons for success

1.      Viewing perspective

2.      space representation is independent of original viewing perspective

To further study the spatial representations of children behaviours apparent during object locating was studied. This is key to understanding how children locate objects in an enclosed space.

Gouteux experimentation shows that there is a difference between the children’s relation to the closed space if they are (physically) inside or outside that space.

Both triangle spaces and rectangular spaces are tested to see how children react to differing geometric spaces for locating an object.


Experiment 1 – Triangle enclosed area (all the following experiments performed on toddlers 20-24 months of age)

1a  Child placed within a triangular room, object hid in a constant location

1b  Child placed within a triangular room, object hid in a variable location

Two trials are run, the second trial to test whether the child can use geometric cues to identify locations within the room.

Study shows that geometric cues are indeed used to identify the hiding place of an object. Angular cues are did not play a significant role in finding the hidden objects (isosceles triangle room).

Perseveration: is when the child remembers where the object was previously so attempts to locate it in the same spot. Perseveration hinders ability to locate objects in the trials.

The Children’s ability to locate the object is increased if constant locations are used (experiment 1a).

Observed behaviour gives evidence that children go directly to the corner which they believe has the object rather than survey the enclosed area. This points to earlier hypothesis that children represent space relative to its parts and not initial location.


Experiment 2 – Triangle enclosed area

Studied whether children can perform the same tasks if placed outside the enclosed space.

Although accuracy is lower children are still able to perform object locating tasks even if they are out of the enclosed area.

Experiment 3 – Rectangular enclosed area

Studied whether children can perform object location but this time with a rectangular area, viewing was done from outside the enclosed area much like experiment 2.

Results further confirm findings in experiment 2. Children are capable of finding objects even if they are not physically in the enclosed area.


Values from the inside vs outside are different due to the vantage points of the child relative to the object. In one it is physically in the room so the geometry is different compared to observing the same dimensions from outside.

“The model we are proposing holds that there are various levels at which the viewer may be included in the representation of a space.” [p.764]

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