Want your kids to have a better sense of direction? Try this

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto 

My children's sense of direction is terrible.

I think it might have something to do with how much attention they pay to their surroundings. I was out walking with my eight-year-old daughter recently, strolling along the same road I usually drive her to school on, and she had no idea where we were.

How does this happen? When I was eight, I knew my neighbourhood like the back of my hand – and would walk to friends' houses without a care in the world.

The problem, according to an article on The Conversation, is that our children aren't allowed roam like they used to. Postdoctoral Associate Vanessa Vieites from Rutgers University says the distance parents have allowed their children to roam has shrunk significantly over the past 50 years – and even more so since the COVID pandemic struck.

Vieites' research shows that children who are allowed to roam farther from their homes are likely to be better and more confident navigators as adults because they use spatial navigation – or way finding – to find their way or figure out shortcuts.

"Giving kids the freedom to roam on their own – whenever sensible – may help them learn better strategies for navigating unfamiliar places and also build confidence when they travel alone," she wrote.

But what about when it's not sensible to let your child roam – how can we help our children to find their way in the world without fully embracing the free-range parenting ethos?

The answer is to start with the basics and build their skills slowly, says pediatric nurse and parent educator Ariella Lew.

"Sometimes the basics are the best place to start," she says. "Using directional words in everyday language such as right, left, opposite and diagonal can help your child to start to develop an awareness of their place within space.

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"When you are in the car with your child undertaking a familiar journey such as to school or to a grandparent, consider asking them to direct you part of the way or point out landmarks such as, at the train station, we turn right. All of these strategies will help to develop an awareness that it is easy to take for granted."

Lew says when it comes time to let your child start roaming on their own, the key is to start small.

"Let them take something to the next door neighbour," she suggests. "Let them walk to the corner where you can still see them from your house. Give them a small task to do which is close and have an agreed timeframe when they will be back.

"Another idea for parents who are comfortable to use technology is to consider a tracking app on a phone they have with them so you can be aware of where they are. However you start, it should be a process that is discussed with your child to ensure everyone's expectations are clear."

When I was young, my grandfather told me getting lost was character building but should we be putting our children into positions where they might get lost?

Lew says the answer depends on the age and problem-solving abilities of the child in question.

"Getting lost is something that happens to us all even as adults and can be very disorienting and triggering depending on the situation," she says. "I would suggest that before any child goes out on their own for the first time, you sit down with them what to do if they become lost so that they feel empowered. I would also only send them where there is a risk of getting lost if they are already confident with at least some of the route they are taking. This will allow them to feel more in control."

As for children who are prone to anxiety, Lew says there are two issues to consider: safety and teaching resilience and coping skills.

"[Anxious children may] go through and panic when they are stressed. I would advise not putting them in situations where getting lost is a possibility as this has the potential to become traumatic for them rather than character building!" she says.

By starting small and being guided by our kids, Lew says there's no reason we shouldn't be able to teach them how to find their way without letting them roam the streets on their before they (or we!) are ready.

"Every child is different and their personality needs to be taken into account," she says. "It is important to ask them what they want and are comfortable with. That is an important part of promoting independence within any life skill."