Library Index


Understanding Space

The Creation of Experience through the Construction of Spatial Reality

Geoffrey Waldon, introducing his theory of child development and learning, writes: That there is an increase in the amount of spontaneous movement in a young baby over a period of time is apparent to the most casual observer; however when it is recognised that the periods of activity are extending in duration and the child is rapidly gaining in both weight and limb-length the actual increase in activity is found to be prodigious.

What is going on here?

Put simply, babies learn to structure and understand space through the early, reflex-driven movements of their arms, head, legs and trunk. The more they turn their head, wave their arms, and reach out to grasp objects, the more thoroughly they explore the surrounding space, and the more familiar it becomes to them. (This near-body space is sometimes referred to by scientists and researchers as 'peri-personal' space.)

To quote Dr Waldon again:

The range of movements for any limb; the amplitudes of each movement and the intensity of action as well as its complexity, grow, as the ... region of 'bodily near-space' extends. Inevitably these regions of structured space overlap to form spatial territories common to more than one limb, and eventually all parts of space are 'known' with all parts of the body ...
Further development in this ... 'space structuring' process results in a capacity to pitch the focus [of attention] at an infinite range of depths, to accommodate a wider angle of 'interest' and to actively scan the surroundings in an organised way.

So, to say that this space comes to be 'understood' by the baby means that he or she can do more in it, using the objects that inhabit it as 'markers' to define and shape the actions of stretching towards, grasping, waving, shaking, scraping, banging, and so on.

As Waldon observes:

It is my view that 'interest' in the environment is primarily an interest in space - the more explored the space, the greater the interest. Interest in the 'contents'of space is subsequently induced from the interest associated with the location of the object. It is not difficult to understand why there is an assumption that it is things that engineer interest, for children of six months or less already focus quite obviously on target objects. However if it is recognised that it is the acting on the space (or on the object within the space) that confers reality on it, it can be seen why action - having duration and being the product of a sequence of changes - should be the basis of memory. Extension of the duration of a 'planned' action gives rise to an anticipation of future events.

And he adds: Compare Piaget's ideas on 'concept of the permanence of an object'.

To summarise what he is saying here: physical acts, through the construction of a spatial frame of reference, give rise to understanding.
This understanding includes what is materially present to the senses and what exists 'in the mind', in our imagination – memory, anticipation, and variants on our lived experience, this last being the favoured realm of the fiction writer.