Two Roads Diverged: Young Children's Ability to Judge Distance

William V. Fabricius, Henry M. Wellman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


In the present studies, we investigated 4‐ and 5‐ to 6‐year‐olds' ability to compare the distances covered by a direct route to a location and an indirect route to the same location. The distances ranged between 16 and 22 feet. The routes were visible from a single vantage point, and objects serving as landmarks were sometimes located along the routes. We found clear demonstrations of the two classic Piagetian distance errors—the direct‐indirect error, in which children judge that a direct route and an indirect route cover the same distance, and the interposed object error, in which children judge that a route is shorter when it is segmented by an object located somewhere along the route. The interposed object error occurred because children focused on only one segment of the route, which was consistent with Piaget's explanation of the error. However, in contrast to Piaget, we found that about 40% of 4‐year‐olds could successfully avoid the direct‐indirect error, and in addition, when the routes were visually displayed, they could also avoid the interposed object error. It is important that they also gave correct explanations for why the indirect route was longer, by referring to the fact that it was not straight. For these children at least, the interposed object error was due to difficulty they had representing routes, rather than to a misconception of distance. We suggest that future research should examine whether that may also be true for younger children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)399-414
Number of pages16
JournalChild development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1993
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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