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Across a series of studies, we explored environmental learning in people with Down syndrome (DS) and Williams syndrome (WS) and in typically developing (TD) children (aged 6 to 12 years) and adults. To better understand environmental learning ability in each of these populations, the first four studies investigate each aspect of the development of environmental learning (study 1: landmark knowledge and the use of landmarks; study 2: knowledge of the sequential order of turns and landmarks on a route, known as route knowledge; study 3: knowledge of the spatial relationship between two places in a learnt environment, known as relational knowledge / cognitive map use; study 4: knowledge of the spatial relationship between multiple places in a learnt environment, which is also a measure of relational knowledge / cognitive map use). Following this, the final study was an investigation of free exploration strategies.  



Lab members


  • Mark Blades
  • Yannick Courbois
  • Jamie Lingwood
  • Pascal Sockeel


Summary of findings to date

According to Siegel and White (1975) the development of large-scale environmental learning begins with knowledge of landmarks along the route, followed by knowledge of the sequential order of turns and landmarks, and finally the development of a cognitive map (configural knowledge).  Our data has generated new knowledge which does not support the notion that individuals gain knowledge of the sequence of turns when learning a new route. Instead, our data suggest that individuals use a recognition strategy at decision points to determine which way to go, evidenced by almost perfect performance in adults when asked to replicate long routes with 15 or more turns.
We have generated new knowledge with reference to Down syndrome (DS) and Williams syndrome (WS). Their navigation difficulties relate to syndrome specific impairments, rather than an artefact of having learning difficulties. The DS group made significantly more errors in learning a six-turn route, and required more practise than the WS group. In typically developing individuals, the ability to learn a route was primarily driven by the capacity to shift attention from one location to another. In DS, the predominant driving mechanism was the ability to follow a set procedure (e.g. to associate landmark A and landmark B with correct and incorrect turns respectively), whereas in the WS group, non-verbal ability was more important. This suggests that different strategies are required for different groups. Furthermore, when finding the shortcut between two known places, the DS group, but not the WS group, often used an alternative strategy to get from A to B; rather than attempting to find the shortcut they summed together fixed routes learnt earlier in the study.
The studies in project ELSTRAD used virtual environments (VEs) which enabled well-controlled research methods. The studies employed larger sample sizes than previous studies (typically, N>150), which provided enough power for multiple regression analyses to determine the syndrome-specific mechanisms which drive different aspects of large-scale environmental learning. We also employed the developmental trajectory approach, which enabled us to determine qualitative difference in the development of environmental learning across our groups, typical development, WS and DS.​​

Download our findings lay summary (PDF)

Publications to date

Courbois, Y., Mengue-Topio. H., Blades, M., Farran, E.K., Sockeel, P. (in press). Description of routes in individuals with intellectual disability. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Lingwood, J., Blades, M., Farran, E. K., Courbois, Y., & Matthews, D. (2018). Using virtual environments to investigate wayfinding in 8- to 12-year-olds and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 166, 178-189.

Farran, E.K. Purser, H.R.M., Courbois, Y., Ballé, M. Sockeel, P., Mellier, D, Blades, M. (2015). Route knowledge and configural knowledge in typical and atypical development: a comparison of sparse and rich environments. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 7:37. doi: 10.1186/s11689-015-9133-6

Lingwood, J., Blades, M., Farran, E. K., Courbois, Y., & Matthews, D. (2015). The development of wayfinding abilities in children: Learning routes with and without landmarks. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 41, 74-80. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.008

Lingwood, J., Blades, M., Farran, E. K., Courbois, Y., & Matthews, D. (2015). Encouraging 5-year olds to attend to landmarks: A way to improve children's wayfinding strategies in a virtual environment. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00174

Purser, H. R. M., Farran, E. K., Courbois, Y., Lemahieu, A., Sockeel, P., Mellier, D., et al. (2015). The development of route learning in down syndrome, williams syndrome and typical development: Investigations with virtual environments. Developmental Science, 18(4), 599-613. doi: 10.1111/desc.12236

Courbois, Y., Farran, E.K., Lemahieu, A., Blades, B., Mengue-Topio, H., Sockeel, P. (2013). Wayfinding behaviour in Down Syndrome: A study with virtual environments. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34, 1825-1831.

Courbois, Y., Blades, M., Farran, E.K., Sockeel, P. (2013). Do individuals with intellectual disability select appropriate objects as landmarks when learning a route? Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 57, 80-89.

Purser, H., Farran, E.K., Courbois, Y., Lemahieu, A., Sockeel, P.,  Blades, M. (2012). Short-term memory, executive control, and children's route learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 113, 273-285. 

Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.

Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability Lab