Does it matter that kids are growing up being told where to go by GPS-based apps?
When I was 12, my mother handed me two different state maps and said, “You’re navigating.” The two of us then got into the car, and we proceeded to drive the 600-some kilometres to my aunt’s house for a visit.
I traced the route over the coffee-stained papers with my finger, counted the mile markers, sent us on a wrong turn once, and, after 20 minutes of driving in the opposite direction, managed to figure out how to get us back on course. The point is not that my mother has the patience of a saint, but that I may have been the last generation to do this. Needless to say, times have changed. But does it matter as long, as we still get where we need to go?
The UK’s Royal Institute of Navigation thinks so. Two years ago, its president, Roger McKinlay, issued this call:
“It is concerning that children are no longer routinely learning at home or school how to do anything more than press ‘search’ buttons on a device to get anywhere. Many cannot read a landscape, an Ordnance Survey map, or find their way to a destination with just a compass, let alone wonder at the amazing role astronomy plays in establishing a precise location.
“Instead, generations are now growing up utterly dependent on signals and software to find their way around.”
Will our kids be able to navigate without an app telling them where to go? Does it matter if they can’t?
How navigation skills develop in kids
As it happens, had my mother given me the map even a couple of years earlier, I may have sent us on many more wrong turns. That’s because between the ages of 6 and 12, the spatial skills that underpin navigational abilities develop rapidly. Navigation skills are typically taught; we’re not born knowing what kind of information a map or compass conveys. Spatial skills are something all mobile animals, humans included, are born with the capacity for, and they develop primarily through observation of and interaction with the environment.
Younger children have more basic spatial skills, called topological spatial concepts – concepts that don’t change if you distort a map. A good example of this is ‘next to’ or ‘across from’. On a map, one house is always next to another, even if you elongate the map and increase the perceived distance between them.
As they grow, kids develop more advanced abilities – an understanding of projective spatial concepts, that is, how perspectives of the same space can differ (for instance, you can look at the same street from one end or the other, but the buildings that appeared at your left from one end will appear at your right from the other), and Euclidean spatial concepts, that is, the representation of 3D space in an abstract way (for instance, in the 2D grid of a map).
These spatial skills ‘come online’ at an adult level around age 12, as the hippocampus, the part of the brain that lights up on scans when people look at images of places, like rooms and landmarks, grows and goes through a burst of connectivity to other parts of the brain.
But these abilities alone don’t ensure navigational success. Verbal and spatial working memory and a host of other brain functions and regions play a role in finding our way around as well. And what is becoming increasingly apparent is that how all of these factors combine into navigational ability — or not — is highly individualized, even among map-reading generations; some people just can’t, as the saying goes, find their way out of a paper bag. Research is slowly shedding light on why there’s so much individual variability in navigational skill, but the question here is whether relying on GPS to navigate will make kids who could’ve been good at finding their way around by themselves, bad.
What happens if navigation skills don’t develop?
It’s a question that, as Nora Newcombe, puts it, is “over-discussed and under-researched.”
Newcombe, PhD, is a psychologist and expert in spatial cognition at Temple University who focuses in how children learn about the world around them. When I asked her about how relying on GPS navigation apps might affect kids, she offered her expert thoughts, but was quick to note the need for evidence. Spatial skills don’t seem to have an expiration date, she said. In other words, the ‘use it or lose it’ theory probably doesn’t apply. But whether these skills translate into navigational ability could be affected, she said, depending on the type of GPS display and how people use it.
“Used on straight-ahead just-tell-me-where-to-go mode, I would say that navigation skills are likely inhibited,” she said.
But with self-driving cars on the horizon, does it matter? What would kids actually lose with fewer navigation skills and nowhere to use them?
“It is likely that low navigational sense affects people’s ability to think about spatial distributions … or in planning,” Newcombe said.
An example of spatial distribution is the ability to understand a city map with neighbourhoods colour-coded by crime statistics – which could have many uses, from helping one choose where to live to deciding whom to vote for; and as for planning skills, Newcombe said it could be as simple as having difficulty locating the nearest convenience store.
But more significantly, poor navigational sense could correlate with less ability in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. The same spatial skills that underpin navigation also underpin these disciplines as well; in fact, studies have shown that spatial ability is the biggest predictor of STEM achievement.
But here’s where it’s important to distinguish, again, between navigation skills and spatial skills. Research has shown that spatial skills can be improved through training in spatial reasoning and even by playing certain video games, and this improvement can positively transfer to other tasks – like, potentially, navigation.
Which means even if kids grow up never unfolding a map and getting around by following a sanitized robot voice’s instructions, there’s hope they won’t be completely lost as long as their spatial skills are developed in other ways. (If you’re looking for a good place to start, try these activities.)
In the meantime, it can’t hurt to mix things up on the next family outing and choose not to turn on the direction function of your map app. Instead, give your preteen a shot at reading the digital map and getting everyone from point A to point B.
With any luck, they’ll only lose their way once.