Teacher-research, children's sense of place, and maps

"I want to make the Earth in the Studio" What do you know about the Earth?
"The Earth is round and round and it has houses. I know the Earth has all kinds of things." -Sammy, 3

How do we learn to think about place? I have been puzzled by the way children may seem to know a place, to be able to represent it verbally or visually sometimes, and other times that knowledge seems to fall apart. How can you know and not know something? Why does it seem a child who has a 'mental map' of a place can appear to lose that picture when inquiring more deeply? I have just found a new idea, one that can help explain this phenomenon. It is the idea of a 'cognitive collage' posited by Barbara Tversky. Best as I can tell, her idea is that we assume a place appears in someone's head as something like a map we might pull up on a computer or have in our glovebox.  But really, until people know a place very, very well, the image we have in our heads is more like a collage than a map, with some very developed areas and some other kind of hazy spots. There may be some accurate routes and connections between places, combined with distortions of distances and errors in relationships between landmarks. Additionally, some of the knowledge may be represented in our heads in a maplike way, but that is combined with all sorts of other sensory information, impressions, bits of memory and even stories.
No wonder people's representations of places are so complicated!

Here is a story of children working with and constructing maps...

As part of their 'Our Richmond' research, to help define this city for themselves, Kindergarteners made models of buildings in Richmond. These revealed some of what the children thought was important within our city.
These are just some of the buildings: Main Street Station, City Hall, Maymont house and barn, apartment building, cupcake shop, Dixie donuts, store, post office, Nathan's tower, Richmond Coliseum, Ice Cream shop, Richmond Zoo, Hotel, Staples Mill train station, Virginia Museum, 'Kid's' Museum, Tennis courts, Old City Hall, Airport

The goal with these models was to use them in a Construction of Richmond that would be built on the block table in the classroom. So next the children began studying a big paper map of Richmond to figure out where to place the buildings on the block table.

On one hand, the children were adept at finding things on the map. Even the children who were not quite reading yet could figure out where things were by their shapes and by putting together a few letters. You can see children in the videos below finding landmarks and noticing them in relation to the river or to City Hall, which they have visited several times.

However, there were some landmarks and parts of the map were the children became confused. Sometimes they chose a random spot for a building, and other times they could narrow down the location with a reference point, (ie: "the Richmond Ballet is on this side of City Hall"), but were incorrect even when earlier they had described the location of the landmark correctly. I began to think the whole thing was just too advanced for the children. Why could they read and represent the map sometimes but not always? This is when the idea of 'cognitive collage' came in handy.

“Mental maps are perceptual constructs in which subjects produce a personal graphical representation of a known environment” (Geography Education Standards 1994, 30) 

"Despite its considerable appeal, as traditionally used, the "cognitive map" metaphor does not reflect the complexity and richness of environmental knowledge. That knowledge comes in a variety of forms, memory snippets of maps we've seen, routes we've taken, areas we've heard or read about, facts about distances or directions."

"Viewed as mental models or cognitive collages, environmental knowledge is not very different from other forms of knowledge. Just as for environments, there are areas of other knowledge where our information is consistent and integrated, but there are also areas where, because of incompleteness or incomparability or error, information cannot be consistent and integrated."
(COGNITIVE MAPS, COGNITIVE COLLAGES, AND SPATIAL MENTAL MODELS BARBARA TVERSKY)  http://psych.stanford.edu/~bt/space/papers/cogmaps1993tversky.pdf

Other times I wrote about mapping are here: place-and-mapping, here; mapping-in-three-dimensions, here; mapping-family and here; what-is-on-your-map-kindergarten