NEWS

Allowing Kids to Explore Further From Home Could Boost Navigational Confidence

Drawing of a young boy looking at a caterpillar in the yard

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • When allowed to explore farther away from home, children become more skilled and confident navigators as adults.
  • Men reported greater freedom to explore their surroundings in childhood and less anxiety with wayfinding in adulthood compared with women.

Most parents and caregivers strive towards building confidence in children—but how? According to a study published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, allowing children to explore further from home may help achieve that goal.

Especially as adults can often be expected to navigate different environments, confidence in finding one’s way can be particularly helpful.

Just as exploring one’s surroundings can develop one’s sense of direction, these early learning experiences can often impact the problem-solving skills that are often necessary to thrive as an adult in the future.

Understanding the Research

For this study, 159 undergraduate students completed a series of questionnaires at a Miami university on their childhood wayfinding experiences, navigational styles, and any associated anxiety.

Findings indicate that men tend to report more use of an orientation strategy, while women more often reported a route strategy. Overall, men reported more comfort in their navigational abilities as they were more often encouraged to explore farther away from home—likely a factor of safety and gender norms.

Some limitations of this study include its small sample size and reliance on self-report about childhood experiences without any observations.

Safety Is Key

Pediatric neuropsychologist and executive director of Brain Behavior Bridge, Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS, says, “As a field, we’ve known for a while that men tend to use an orientation strategy (i.e. north, south, east, west) and women tend to use objects in their location (i.e. take a left at the Walmart), and this study confirms that.”

While it may be easy to ponder, Allen cautions readers from assuming that all children should wander miles away from home, as safety was not addressed in this study. “It was also conducted in college students and relied on their memory of what they were able to do as a child. We know that retrospective memories are not always accurate,” she says.

Allen says, “It suggests that the further people traveled from home as a child while running errands or exploring, the less anxious they are as adults with new routes and more likely they were to use an orientation strategy. It also suggests that the further we let children go to explore their surroundings, the less anxiety they have about navigating their world in the future. In addition, they’re more likely to develop an orientation vs. location strategy, which may help them find their way more as adults.”

Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS

It suggests that the further people traveled from home as a child while running errands or exploring, the less anxious they are as adults with new routes and more likely they were to use an orientation strategy.

— Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS

According to Allen, children should be encouraged to safely explore their environment by running errands or playing treasure hunt-style games, as it is not just about being outside, but about exploring outside. “The consistent exposure and learning are what creates the growth in our navigation skills and the reduction in our kids’ anxiety about exploring that world, thus potentially enhancing the connections in our brain,” she says.

Age-Appropriate Learning Shapes Adult Development

Licensed psychologist, founder of Atlas Psychology, and researcher at Michigan State University, Amy Nasamran, PhD, says, “The takeaways from this study are that early learning experiences are important and can shape our cognitive and emotional development as we grow into adults.”

While early learning experiences are a chance to explore, Nasamran highlights how they are important for promoting feelings of success and competence, as the most effective way to address anxiety is to face situations, experience them, and learn from them. “While it can be tempting to protect and shield our children, providing age-appropriate learning opportunities is important to shaping their development into well-rounded, confident, and competent adults,” she says.

Nasamran says, “The research on gender differences in learning is long withstanding. While there’s overall agreement that men and women don’t tend to differ in terms of general intellectual ability, some studies have shown some differences between men and women in terms of specific abilities. For example, studies over time have suggested that the largest difference exists between men and women in terms of visual-spatial ability, in that men tend to outperform women in this area.”

Although it may be easy to automatically assume that these gendered differences are based on biology, Nasamran explains that social and cultural factors may be at play. “It’s important to note that researchers in this study found no differences between boys’ and girls’ spatial abilities at the young age of 3, while differences emerged in later childhood and adulthood, suggesting likely effects from culture and society,” she says.

Nasamran says, “Another caveat from this study is that researchers did not examine the reason behind the women’s greater anxiety; they could not conclude that it was simply due to fear of getting lost or other reasons, and again, culture and societal factors can play a major role in women experiencing more anxiety in unfamiliar places than men.”

Given her background as a psychologist in a school system, Nasamran has seen firsthand how teaching and practice of skills can lessen the gap in learning differences across different groups of students. “The research also suggests that girls are capable of developing visual-spatial skills equal to men when provided with equal opportunities to learn,” she says.

Nasamran says, “Parents can play a major part in this learning process by providing young children of all genders with age-appropriate equal learning opportunities. Helping young children experience success with learning opportunities can also foster their sense of agency and confidence, motivating them to keep learning and building on their skills.”

Amy Nasamran, PhD

Parents can play a major part in this learning process by providing young children of all genders with age-appropriate equal learning opportunities.

— Amy Nasamran, PhD

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, allowing children to explore their surroundings may increase confidence in navigation skills. Parents can foster confidence in their children by allowing them to safely explore their neighborhood, including walking to school, the store, or meeting friends. Such early learning experiences that nurture independence can pave the way for a greater sense of autonomy in adulthood.

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  1. Vieites V, Pruden SM, Reeb-Sutherland BC. Childhood wayfinding experience explains sex and individual differences in adult wayfinding strategy and anxietyCogn Res Princ Implic. 2020;5(1):12. doi:10.1186/s41235-020-00220-x