Incorporating Spatial Analyses into Early Care and Education Research

Research BriefEarly ChildhoodDec 2 2019

This resource focuses on how spatial analysis can be used to understand early care and education (ECE) patterns and trends. Spatial analysis is an analytic method that uses location-based variables or maps to understand how places, the characteristics of places, and the people and things in places are arranged in space, as well as the reasons for these arrangements. Spatial analysis is growing in popularity in research and its uses encompass more than what is presented in this resource (see Additional Resources for other information about spatial analysis).

Spatial analysis is particularly useful for ECE research because of the localized nature of many ECE-related research topics. For example, parents can only use ECE providers located within a reasonable distance from their home or workplace. Spatial analysis allows researchers to integrate location-based information into their analyses. Additionally, findings of research using spatial analysis can be displayed visually, which is appealing to a variety of audiences. Maps that present information based on spatial analysis can be static, such as a map depicting the number of child care centers or family child care homes in a state at one point in time. Maps also can be interactive, allowing users to manipulate the type of information they want to see, such as by adding a layer of information about the quality of the child care providers or the density of poverty surrounding the programs. Further, many of the data elements necessary for spatial analysis in ECE research can be found in administrative data. For example, program locations may be found in child care resource and referral data, and census data can yield information about neighborhood demographics.

Spatial analysis encompasses multiple techniques that can be carried out with a variety of software programs. Spatial analysis techniques for ECE research include defining an area based on geographical characteristics (e.g., areas within 10 miles of a child care provider) or quantifying the relationship between two locations (e.g., the distance between a child’s home and a child care provider). Researchers can use geographic information system (GIS) software programs1 to conduct spatial analysis; these programs allow researchers to gather information from pre-existing maps, or create new variables based on spatial information and analyze spatial patterns. They can also use statistical programs2 that have specific capabilities or commands for analyzing location-based information.

This resource first highlights three uses of spatial analysis that are common in ECE research: (1) categorizing geographical areas, (2) creating variables using spatial information, and (3) analyzing spatial patterns and associations. This is not an exhaustive list of all that can be done with spatial analysis; rather, it is a summary of common approaches in ECE research that are most suitable for ECE researchers new to spatial analysis.

The resource then presents challenges to using spatial analytic techniques for ECE research and offers tips to address those challenges. This information may be most helpful for researchers who are new to integrating spatial analysis into their research and want to understand how spatial analysis may help answer critical questions about ECE.


1. Researchers can use a range of specialized software programs, such as ArcGIS, GeoDa, and Texas A&M Geocoder to conduct spatial analysis in ECE research.

2. Examples of statistical programs with some geospatial capabilities include Stata, R, SPSS, and SAS.