Relative Position in Math: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Carol PeQueen

Prior to working in a college Elementary Education program, Carol was a 3rd grade teacher. She holds a PhD in Instructional Design.

In this lesson, you'll learn what relative position means and how to identify where objects are positioned in relationship to other nearby objects. These skills are helpful for reading charts, graphs, and maps, and also for working with 3-D shapes.

Relative Position

Imagine you and a friend are exploring the bottom of the ocean. You hope to find something of value, maybe even buried treasure, but the ocean floor is so big. How do you keep track of where you've already looked, and where you still need to go? And when you find something, how do you tell your friend where to look?

Two Scuba Divers
Two Scuba Divers

To solve this problem, we need to understand the idea of relative position. When we describe the relative position of an object, our words about where it is located will not always be the same. How you talk about the object can depend on where you are, and the description might also change if it is based on where other objects are. This idea is different from fixed position, where we agree to identify location using a system of labels that don't move or change (like a grid).

Let's imagine that on your deep sea dive, you have spotted an object behind some seaweed that looks interesting. The item is in front of you and a little to your right. But your friend is in a different part of the ocean. If you tell your friend (through your underwater headset) to look in front and a little to the right, they will not find the object you're seeing. 'In front' and 'to the right' are relative positions - their meaning depends on the position of the person observing. The object itself has not moved, of course. But the description of its position will change based on the location of the observer.


How Relative Position Can Change

Let's explore another scenario to learn more about changes in relative position.

A lighthouse keeper and his helper work in a lighthouse that is five stories tall. Supplies are kept on the third floor. If the workers are at the top of the lighthouse, the keeper will tell his helper to go down two stories to get what they need. But down is a relative position - it is dependent on where the workers are located. If they happen to be on the ground outside and need supplies, what would the keeper say then? Certainly not to go down - then they would have to start digging! A helper on the ground floor would need to climb up to get the supplies.

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