The perception of space is a basic cognitive function, which emerges very early in human development and which is already fully consolidated within a few years.
The ability to describe space, on the other hand, grows very slowly and even at ten years old children show significant differences with adults in rendering spatial relationships, both in stories and in descriptions of static images.
A first order of difficulty has to do with the lexical heritage: to provide a good description, appropriate words are needed, and it is known that the vocabulary widens considerably until the end of adolescence, especially in those who follow schooling.
However, children and youngsters also find it difficult to describe familiar situations and objects, so they have all the necessary words: what is lacking in these cases is a real descriptive competence, like the ability to construct a certain type of discourse with its functional specificities. Let us now see how this competence develops in children aged 4, 7 and 10, based on the studies of Giuliano et al (2003) and Hendriks et al (2004) who asked Italian, Polish, English and French children and learners of second language to describe the image of a square with many objects and characters.
At the age of 4, children produce simple lists of objects, which are not placed in any way in space, but are simple apparitions, like in a house then.
Then a road. Of the machines. A bicycle. Of the gentlemen. A newspaper. These lists are not totally disorganized, but often follow simple principles of perceptive salience: for example, they are named first the great things, or foreground, or in the central part of the figure. Sometimes the names are better specified with some modifier, like in a bike with a gentleman or lady on a bicycle, or rarely with localizing prepositional phrases, as in a bicycle on a tree. These localizations are almost exclusively topological, that is of the type ‘close to’ or ‘in’. There is almost no explicit general localization, that is, which refers to the image in its entirety, indicating that the object is located at the top, bottom or center. If you ask to add details, young children describe objects (eg color or appearance) better, but almost never their spatial location.
Even at the age of 7, children find it difficult to refer to the image as a whole, with locations of objects in relation to the global picture.
On the other hand, local localizations are growing considerably, that is, referents with respect to one another, and if one asks for clarifications, they now also concern the position of objects. The variety of prepositions increases to express relationships (for example between), but they continue to be mainly topological, generic (near, next) rather than projective (front, back, top, bottom) and the latter rarely on the lateral axis (right / left). While adults have no doubt in choosing the relatum (or background) between relatively large and fixed objects, with respect to which to locate smaller and more mobile figures, often children of this age follow the opposite strategies, constructing statements as there is a tree near the girls playing, which sounds at least curious.
Even at the age of 10, children do not systematically place referents with respect to the overall picture, but continue to follow the strategy of mentioning one and then placing others with respect to that, without the interlocutor being able to understand where all this is compared to. to the figure as a whole. See for example this beginning of description: Then I see a + of the houses. Then we go to the street and to people and everything else. The projective relations between referents are increasing, which are mainly on the vertical axis (above / below) and less on the sagittal axes (behind, in front, beyond, in front) and lateral (on the right / left). The lateral projective relationships require to take into account three reference points – 1) the theme, 2) the relatum and 3) the speaker or listener – as in the fountain (1) is to the right (mine / yours) (3 ) of the square (2), and develop fully only in adulthood. The significant step forward that is found at 10 years is the construction of descriptive essays that show more and more internal cohesion and resemble less and less the scattered lists of 4-year-old children: we find space-time expressions such as always / again, additive as anchor / other and the adversary adverb instead, which contribute to giving the impression of a essay in which the different parts hold each other more closely, with statements like And then there is another building always close to the people.
This evolution has to do essentially with cognitive and communicative development, and only in part with linguistic development. This is demonstrated by the comparison between children and adult learners of an L2. Even the beginner levels, which certainly have linguistic means more rudimentary than those of the native children, have no difficulty in placing the objects with respect to the global picture of the figure described, or to express projective relations of various kinds, including the lateral ones, which we have seen instead cause problems up to 10 years.
As regards the expression of simultaneity between actions, this too has a slow development throughout childhood and pre-adolescence. Before the age of 7, children almost never express relations of contemporaneity, but make them as if they were successive actions with connective elements such as, and then, then. At the age of 8 (and in any case after having done a didactic course on the description of simultaneous actions) we find expressions like Filippo is: ## he is carrying out co: mpiti. while the others: finish the snack or Many children are talking: with the Bleonite? and she in the meantime: is trying to give (h) rgli some of her snack. Between the ages of 7 and 10, even the subordinate temporal numbers introduced when, as in The Child was about to drown when the dog saw a ladder, also increase, or When the teacher enters, everyone rises and says good morning.