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Nov. 17, 1999 Press Contact: William Harms
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University of Chicago research shows that boys outperform girls by age 4 1/2

Researchers at the University of Chicago have demonstrated for the first time that boys have an advantage over girls in their understanding of spatial relationships by age 4 1/2, much earlier than previously thought.

Spatial skills, which help people figure out maps and interpret technical drawings, are important to everyday living as well as performing well in school and on the job. Scholars have known for some time that males outperform females by adolescence.

Although other work has hinted at the possibility of early sex differences in spatial understanding, the recently published article “Early Sex Differences in Spatial Skill” reports the first unambiguous evidence that these sex differences develop during the preschool years.

“These findings should put to rest claims that adolescence marks the onset of sex differences in spatial skills,” said Susan Levine, Professor of Psychology, at the University of Chicago the lead author of the article published in the current issue of Developmental Psychology. Her co-authors are Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology at the University; Amy Taylor, a recent A.B. graduate; and Adela Langrock, a Ph.D. student at the University.

“The finding that sex differences in spatial learning develop so early is intriguing because it disproves previous theories that these differences are brought on by biological factors such as hormonal changes at the onset of adolescence,” said Nora Newcombe, Professor of Psychology at Temple University.

“It is also an important piece of work because of the methodology. These researchers have developed an excellent way to detect early spatial learning-something that had not been done before,” she added. “Their work is the first strong evidence we have about how early differences in spatial learning develop between boys and girls and should lead to additional important work in the area of early learning.”

Other studies suggest that the gap between boys and girls in spatial skill may widen as they grow older, possibly due to greater spatial input to males. “Recent changes in the work place make increasing demands on the use of spatial skills and could accordingly disadvantage women,” said Huttenlocher.

“Greater demands on spatial skill are made by various technical tasks that are pervasive in a complex society, such as interpretation of graphs, maps, architectural drawings and X-rays,” Huttenlocher said. The tasks often require the ability to mentally rotate images, she added.

Mental rotation is a specific example of spatial transformation. Spatial transformation is the general change in an individual’s view of the relationship between him or herself and an object or array of objects. Mental rotation is a particular process through which a viewer predicts what any array of objects would look like if they were rotated on its axis by some number of degrees.

The University of Chicago researchers used tests of mental transformation as they studied 288 children for their research. They divided the children, who were aged 4 years to 6 years, 11 months, into six age groups of 24 boys and 24 girls. The scholars studied mental because it is the spatial skill that other studies have shown to be the strongest determinant of differences in spatial skill between males and females.

The children were presented with pictures of two pieces of a complex geometric shape. They were then asked to show which one of four shapes could be made by the two pictured pieces. Researchers found that boys began to outperform girls at 4 1/2 years of age.

The origins of the differences in spatial skills between boys and girls are unclear. “They could be related to the way they are reared, caused by biological factors or both,” Levine said. Boys tend to play in a way that encourages spatial skill development. They play with blocks and build models, for example. But researchers do not know if they develop spatial skills through these influences, or if their brains have evolved to process spatial information differently, perhaps in a way related to the division of labor between men and women in hunter/gatherer societies.

“We think quite a bit can be done to enrich the learning environment so that girls develop high levels of spatial skills,” Levine explained. “Parents and teachers need to recognize the differences, however, and realize that if a girl is having trouble working on a task that requires spatial thinking, she may need extra encouragement and help.”

Levine and Huttenlocher are researchers with the Early Childhood Initiative, which receives funding through a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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