Researchers at the University of Bristol have shown that GPS technology can be used to show how children as young as three find their way around.
GPS allows a user with a receiver to determine precise coordinates for their location on the Earth's surface.
Humans are known to use surrounding objects to orientate themselves, and the process has been widely studied in non-human animal species.
More recent research, looking at the development of this ability in children, suggests that humans do not accurately use landmarks to orient themselves until they are about six years old.
However, all studies to date have taken place in artificial laboratory environments rather than the real world.
Dr Alastair Smith, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Bristol University, and his colleagues have tested the ability of children aged between three and seven to orient themselves outdoors.
The results suggest that children as young as three use outdoor landmarks, like trees and buildings, to find their way around.
The tests took place in open parkland at Durdham Downs in Bristol where the children had to remember where an object had been hidden.
Children observed a sticker being placed beneath one of four buckets which were arranged in a square. In some trials the buckets were the same colour, in others they were different.
After the sticker had been hidden the children were disorientated by being blindfolded and turned around until they no longer knew which way they were facing.
The blindfold was then removed and the children went to the bucket where they thought the sticker was hidden.
The experiment shows that the children could only have picked the correct bucket if they had used environmental landmarks.
Performance was measured by attaching GPS receivers to the children, which allowed researchers accurately to track their movements.
"Using GPS to study these abilities is a novel approach and shows that there is more to sat-nav than helping to find the right exit off the motorway," said Dr Smith. It could be a powerful tool in exploring how we interact with the world around us."
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