A new study in Child Development, co-authored by a Barnard professor and a Barnard alumna, has shown that the development of spatial cognition—how infants and toddlers learn to encounter the world’s wealth of information—is heavily tied to the cultural norms of their caregivers. Psychology Professor Koleen McCrink (left), Christina Caldera ’12 (below right), and Professor Samuel Shaki of Ariel University in Israel studied one- and two-year-olds with their parents in both New York City and Israel and found that English-speaking parents tended to tell stories and present information with left-to-right gestures, while Hebrew-speaking parents made similar gestures in a right-to-left motion.


Spatial orientation is significant as a way to order a messy world. People assign physical objects space (for example, the way silverware is organized in a kitchen drawer). Abstract concepts are given spatial order as well—first, last, small, large. Spatial understanding makes an important difference in academic achievement. For instance, people with dyscalculia—a disorder involving mathematical concepts—have an impaired ability to link numbers and spatial reasoning. But children who learn to connect space and number in the right way, early in their development, exhibit higher formal math skills.


McCrink’s findings suggest that spatial influence happens much earlier than language acquisition, and that children don’t need to be able to read and write to be influenced by the direction of our culturally dominant script, as was previously thought. The team’s research supports the idea that reading to, and actively learning with, a child can have a lasting impact on the child’s cognitive skills and academic abilities.

McCrink joined the faculty in 2009. Before coming to Barnard, she held a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University and also taught at Yale and Rutgers universities. At Barnard, she teaches developmental psychology, introductory psychology, and a cognitive development seminar. McCrink’s research focuses on the development of spatial and numerical cognition from infancy through adulthood. Her work has been funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.


Lede image photo credit: Mark Skipper