In my previous post about critical early math skills that help children thrive, I promised to delve deeper into each of the seven early math skills and how we can foster them in children to allow them to thrive academically and personally. Keeping true to my word, this will be the first in a series of blog posts on the topic and will focus on fostering spatial reasoning in children to help them thrive. So let’s jump into it!
To recap, spatial reasoning skills (sometimes called visual spatial skills, spatial abilities, or spatial intelligence) allow humans to visualize shapes and objects in different positions, manipulate them in our minds, and imagine their movement in relation to one another. It is being able to think about how an object looks from different angles or if placed on its side. It is being able to judge distances and deciding which direction to take. It is creating three-dimensional models of concepts and objects.
CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD
According to PBS.org, spatial reasoning connects math to the physical world and includes skills like reading maps, understanding symmetry, and building 3D objects.
Spatial thinking and mathematical thinking are tightly linked, and children’s spatial reasoning in early childhood is a predictor of later mathematics achievement. Some research has shown that improving spatial reasoning has even improved performance in children’s counting skills.
WHY DO ADULTS NEED SPATIAL REASONING SKILLS?
Some of the ways we use our spatial abilities are:
- Reading maps
- Merging into a lane on the highway
- Tying shoelaces or gift wrapping
- Cutting a birthday cake into equal slices
- Assembling furniture and toys
- Imagining the layout of a house or a room
- Figuring out how to make the best use of space (think packing for a vacation)
- Understanding and doing well in mathematics
- So many entrance exams to education/specialization programs and pre-employment screening tests
- So many jobs and professional settings, which require taking abstract information, visualizing it, and thinking up possible solutions to solve real-world problems.
To elaborate on the last bullet point, strong spatial reasoning skills help with critical thinking and taking abstract information, visualizing it, and applying it to solve problems. Professional fields that require strong spatial reasoning skills include chemistry, physics, medicine, geology, graphic design, photography, architecture, construction, engineering, sonography (reading those ultrasounds), interior design, astronomy, and many more.
This skill is particularly useful for STEM careers, or those careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Did I mention that not only is STEM where many of the high paying jobs are and will be, but, more importantly, STEM holds so much promise and potential in solving real problems of our world from disease, to pollution, to climate change, to world hunger and beyond. The future is bright and our children can be the powerful force behind those solutions that will make this world a better place to live in. They will need to show up prepared for these careers that require strong spatial reasoning skills, however, and that starts with you and the superpower of your words.
BABY & CHILD CONNECTION
Did you know that infants acquire and use spatial skills very early on? And just like with most other skills for babies and toddlers, it is cumulative, which means that each experience with and stimulation of spatial skills builds on itself and gives our tiny humans more context about the world. In turn, this context gives them more opportunities to sharpen, improve and apply these skills.
This means that the earlier and more frequently we expose a child to spatial talk and activities, the more ready they will be to apply these skills to problem solve in the classroom and use them as a springboard to learn more challenging and abstract information to, eventually, work with and solve real-world problems.
WHAT ABOUT MY OLDER CHILD? AM I TOO LATE?
Giving a head start in anything is always an advantage, but if a child is a bit older and/or hasn’t been exposed to these skills that just means we start right then and meet them where they are! I’m really working on not living in the past and regretting (not easy) and any small step towards progress is still a step, and it can be the first step of many steps, so please don’t be discouraged if this is the first time you’re hearing about spatial abilities. A child’s brain is a magnificent organ, capable of learning and molding at a spectacular rate. We can stimulate spatial reasoning skills in school-aged children and those with learning disabilities and give them the opportunity to thrive. Better late than never!
“I HEARD BOYS HAVE MORE SPATIAL INTELLIGENCE THAN GIRLS”
TRUE or FALSE? Boys are wired for stronger spatial abilities than girls and, because of this, a gender gap exists.
Research has shown that there is no gender gap in spatial reasoning skills WHEN girls are provided with the SAME learning opportunities, verbal input and stimulation as boys. It’s just that, historically, society conditioned us to treat boys and girls differently, with spatial language and activities being used more often with boys than with girls from a very young age (think encouraging a boy toddler to play with blocks and a girl toddler to play with her dolls and not encouraging her towards block play). And while some children may be born with a predisposition for spatial processing, it is ultimately access to and practice with spatial reasoning that trains and improves this important skill. This goes for children with learning challenges as well.
If we are self-aware about that conditioning and believe in the spatial abilities of both our boys and girls by providing both genders with the same opportunities to spatial reasoning talk and activities, the gender gap becomes non-existent.
HOW DO I FOSTER SPATIAL REASONING SKILLS IN A CHILD?
Glad you asked! To put it simply, we foster spatial reasoning skills in three ways:
TALK THE SPATIAL TALK
Let’s talk about your superpower. In a nutshell, parents who use more “spatial” words with their children improve their children’s understanding of spatial concepts and relationships between objects. A researcher by the name of Susan Levine from the University of Chicago showed that children who heard more spatial talk starting from 4 months of age, later spoke more spatial talk, and those who spoke more spatial talk had stronger spatial skills and performed MUCH BETTER on spatial tests at 4 ½ years of age. This wasn’t because these kids were divinely endowed with smarts. It was a direct result of their early language environment and hearing those words related to shapes, sizes, design, dimensions, and spatial properties from a young age that determined their abilities! Hear Professor Levine talk about her research here.
This is AMAZING! It shows that you get out in skills and abilities what you put in with words and language! Adults can affect a non-verbal ability (spatial skills) by using a verbal one (words)! This has implications for our children’s critical thinking, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence because we can stimulate these abilities through our words. We can influence a child’s success in this world with words! I told you it was your superpower!
To develop spatial reasoning, talk spatial words to children. The more they hear words describing shapes/objects and the space they take up, the more they will begin to understand and use the same words! In other words, THE MORE YOU TALK, THE MORE THEY UNDERSTAND AND TALK.
Without further ado let’s break out the spatial words we can use with children to put some oomph in their potential in math and beyond!
Name those squares, triangles, and cones and get kids used to identifying them whenever and wherever they seem them.
|TALK LIKE THIS:||“Look at this circle”||“I see a rectangle”||“I spy a pyramid, do you?”|
|SUPERPOWER WORDS:||square, rectangle, cube, triangle, cone, pyramid, circle, oval, sphere, semi-circle, dome, cone, cylinder, star, pentagon, diamond, heart (I like this one because it combines curves and lines that meet to form an angle), spiral, spring|
TALK SIZE & DIMENSIONS
Talking about the sizes of objects and spaces helps kids compare the dimensions and understand how they relate to one another.
|TALK LIKE THIS:||“This car is small, but this one is big”||“This dinosaur is enormous!”||“My tower is big. Your tower is bigger. Daddy’s tower is the biggest.”|
|SUPERPOWER WORDS:||small, smaller, smallest, big, bigger, biggest, little, large, huge, enormous, colossal, gigantic, tiny, medium, tall, taller, tallest, short, shorter, shortest, life-size|
Describing the characteristics and features of an object or space is equally important and builds up their descriptive vocabulary.
|TALK LIKE THIS:||“This square has 4 sides”||“The triangle has 3 corners”||“This line is curved and this one is straight”|
|SUPERPOWER WORDS:||tall, short, thick, thin, wide, narrow, long, short, straight, curvy, round, edge, corner, angle, sharp, flat, raised, open, closed, shallow, medium, large, line, side, symmetrical, deep, shallow, hallow, empty, full, filled, dense, heavy, light, twisted, symmetrical, asymmetrical, equal|
TALK POSITION AND LOCATION
Talking about the position and location of something or someone and using spatial words in directions not only improves spatial reasoning skills, but helps kids learn preposition words, which also help with comprehension of directions and information presented in verbal and written form later on.
|TALK LIKE THIS:||“Let’s put the doll between the teddy bear and the car”||“Weeeee, my car is turning left!”|
|“Is the kitty under the covers? Is it on top of the table? Let’s look behind the curtain. Oh! I see it across the room, in the middle of the rug!”||“These 2 sticks are parallel to each other”|
|SUPERPOWER WORDS:||high, low, above, below, over, under, underneath, next to, inside, outside, middle, between, on the side, left, right, through, top, bottom, in front of, behind, across, before, after, beneath, up, down, into, near, far, toward, forward, backward, away, past, against, turn, connect, around, sideways, parallel, diagonal, across, adjacent, opposite (as in on the opposite side), gap, space, position|
TALK RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN OBJECTS
When we talk about how something is similar to or different from something else, it develops the critical thinking skill of comparing and contrasting where a child learns to identify similar and dissimilar properties and characteristics in objects, places, and people, and, eventually, processes. Comparing and contrasting also gives more context to children about the world, objects, and concepts around them. This helps them organize their world in the filing cabinets of their amazing brains and ready themselves to apply that information!
As an added bonus, children are often asked to compare and contrast in their classrooms and sharpening this critical thinking skill will help them thrive academically, professionally (comparing what has and hasn’t worked in the past on work projects and in processes), and personally (think comparing your new date’s qualities to those of your ex-boyfriend).
So when you’re talking about characteristics of items or shapes, compare and contrast them to the characteristics of other items and shapes and model this critical way of thinking to your little ones. It’s a good idea to explain how and why objects are similar or different.
|TALK LIKE THIS:||“Jason’s bike is similar to yours because it also has two wheels. It’s different because his bike is blue and yours is red.”||“Look, both puzzles have animals in them.”||“My block is different from yours because it’s in the shape of a cube, but yours is the shape of a semi-circle.”|
|SUPERPOWER WORDS:||same, similar, alike, both, different, dissimilar, adding “er” and “est” when comparing (bigger, smaller, larger, higher, lower, wider, narrower, smallest, biggest, etc.)|
Remember, the ultimate goal is for kids to begin using these spatial words themselves. After all, a true test of mastery is when we are able to apply the knowledge we have learned to create or solve. To stimulate a child to talk in this way, ask her to find and name shapes, provide reasons for how she knows that is the shape, and give you directions during play activities. Speaking of play…
PLAY THE SPATIAL WAY
Now that you are familiar with the powerful words that stimulate the development of spatial reasoning skills, let’s talk about how we use those power words during fun play activities with kids to turbo-charge their spatial intelligence development.
Build ‘em, stack ‘em, talk about ‘em. Playing with blocks in particular is linked to stronger spatial skills. You can play with blocks that only have cubes, but I really love the ones that include other shapes, like these Melissa & Doug wooden blocks, which allow for more spatial language, fun and learning. And, of course, we can’t forget Lego blocks, which can be played with older kiddos (or younger ones if you get the Mega Blocks or Lego Duplo).
You want to make sure your kiddo is not only watching you, but also building and touching the blocks as that input from touching and manipulating the blocks (or any object) is great for remembering. You can have the child repeat what you’re doing or match what you have built while you talk the spatial talk to give her the feel and context for how these concepts translate into our physical world. You can also try to repeat after or match objects built by your child and reinforce with more spatial language as you copy her. I write “her” because parents tend to play blocks more with boys than with girls, and this is just a friendly reminder that baby girls enjoy block play just as much as boys 😊
Shape sorters are great not only for spatial skills, but for eye-hand coordination and matching/sorting so you will be seeing this lovely toy again on a future post related to the early math skill of sorting and matching. It also allows for manipulating shapes to make them fit just right through the openings and isn’t a huge part of spatial reasoning being able to manipulate objects in your mind and judging distance and size? Why, yes it is! Well, to manipulate in your mind, you first need to learn to manipulate physically. See how powerful play can be for the babies?!
Bead mazes are great to develop spatial skills as children learn spatial talk (ex. “let’s make the ball go all the way through until the end” or “the squares are right next to each other, let’s separate them” or “the bead is connected to the wire”). They are also great for developing eye-hand coordination. We found this maze at Target about 6 years ago that offered a few more bells and whistles than the typical maze and lasted through both of my kids. This one is Amazon’s choice.
I think they should have called these MAGNIFICENT tiles. You can do so much with them to instill early spatial skills and beyond. Just like with blocks you can talk about the shapes, sizes, space they take up or structures they create, characteristics, location/position, and relationship between what you and your little one have built. On top of all that, if you get a few sets of these babies together, even MORE fun (and hence learning) can happen because you can build a house around your child (as in your child is partially or fully INSIDE the structure…usually with toddlers), you can stack magnets together for towers, you can lay them out in a line or parallel lines, you can create large shapes out of smaller magnet shapes because they stick together (think laying out small square magnets to form a large square/rectangle OR a pizza pie made up of long triangle slices…so triangles all of a sudden turn into a circle…WOW!), or you can enclose toys/objects inside the structures you build.
TIP: This next play idea is a BIGGIE so I’m making it a separate paragraph. When you build magnetic structures with your kiddos, make them small enough to handle in your hands and gently pick them up and turn them to allow the child to view them from different angles, sides, and perspectives. This is a HUGE part of a person’s spatial abilities…being able to manipulate objects mentally in your mind. But remember, first, you need to be able to manipulate objects physically to give the brain the knowledge it needs to manipulate and turn in the mind.
I did this with my daughter the other day. She built a small rectangular structure made up of 3 cubes made of magnets. One of the cubes remained open. I gently took it so as not to break it and slowly turned it in my hands while she looked on. I pointed out that when we turn her magnetic toy upside down, the opening can no longer be seen. Then I turned it around again to make it appear. I turned it to the side and then to the other side so she could see how her view of the structure was affected. All the while using words like “left, right, upside down, under, beneath, on top, over, turn, spin” to give her an additional experience with those words. She was having fun watching mama spin her toy in every direction, but she also got a good dose of spatial knowledge! Take a look at the video below as an example:
There are so many good magnetic tiles out there. The disclaimer is that they tend to be pricey, BUT the family gets so much play and fun out of it, so if you can manage it, it is well worth it. Over the last 4 years we have accumulated about three sets of the Picasso Tiles from birthdays and special occasions, and my 8 year-old STILL enjoys playing with them, unlike many of his other toys that cost a small fortune but have been relegated to the back of the closet. Doing a simple search on Amazon also turned up this set, which seems to give more bang for the buck. Ebay is also a great site to find more expensive items for less. There are so many variations. Just search “magnetic tiles” and prepare to be amazed! You really can’t go wrong with any magnetic tile sets.
Playing with puzzles and blocks has been linked to stronger spatial reasoning abilities. Puzzles come with multiple pieces that require manipulating them to make them fit and create a bigger picture. The more complicated the puzzle, the more spatial skill and problem-solving muscles getting trained in the brain. Of course with older infants and young toddlers you can’t start out with a 1,000 piece puzzle. There are SO MANY fun and “chunky” puzzles out there for babies and young children that set them up for later success with bigger and more challenging puzzles. I do love Melissa & Doug puzzles for their fun designs, sturdy feel and durability. You may want to start with something like this chunky puzzle for the older infant/young toddler. I really like this one as well. We are currently onto this one with my 3-year-old daughter, as pictured below.
Books! How do I love thee. Let me count the ways…
I love you for the concepts you’re able to convey,
I love you for the pictures and context you’re able to display.
I love you for the warm voice and closeness a child feels while I am reading,
I love you for the focus and attention that you are building.
I love you for the learning of new vocabulary and information,
I love you for how much you give, and spatial skills are no exception!
Can you tell books excite me? They are so versatile. You can gift your babe so much language, nurturing, critical thinking skills, and, yes…you guessed it, early math skills. Books that check the box for building spatial reasoning skills are those that contain pictures from different angles and perspectives, talk about size or distance, or include shapes and maps. You can ask children to imagine what an action will look like (“let’s imagine how that box will look like while it’s falling”) or predict what will happen to an object if it is turned or placed upside down.
Some tips when reading books are to try and vary your voice for different characters to keep kiddo engaged, point and gesture to add meaning to new words (for example, tracing the fox’s ears with your finger when you talk about how it reminds you of a triangle), and follow the child’s lead. If you’re reading a book with an older infant or young toddler, they may not be ready to sit still for 5-15 minutes to go through the whole book. You may only stay on the first page that day. If they point to the owl on the page, just talk about the owl or the shapes you see, how it’s flying and getting farther away. The point is to focus on what the child is focused on and use their attention to your advantage by talking about what is of interest to them.
Your POWER WORDS will still be similar to those mentioned above for other toys. Be sure to name any shapes, talk about pictures using spatial language about distance, location, position, spatial characteristics, and the relationship between things and people in the book.
As an example, check out the preview for the book Shrinking Mouse by Pat Hutchins on Amazon by clicking on the book image where it says “look inside.” The book shows kiddos that moving objects, animals, and people into the distance affects the size at which we see them. (Thank you spatial skills gods…and of course Pat Hutchins!). The added bonus is that, in the end, all the animals appear together again, and we see that their size has not changed at all. It was all a matter of perception and distance! This book is great for young toddlers and pre-schoolers, because even if they don’t’ understand all the written words, you can simply talk about the pictures and spatial concepts, which will still be POWERFUL.
In addition to Shrinking Mouse here are some other suggestions for wonderful books that set the stage for spatial skill development. The books are organized by age, going from younger to older.
A few of the books have reading guides created by the DREME Network at Stanford University. Check them out here towards the bottom of their webpage.
Infant to Toddler
Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill
Note: Love this one for location/position words for the infant/toddler group. All of my friends with new babies get this one as a gift.
Shapes by John J. Reiss
Which is Round? Which is Bigger? by Mineko Mamada
Big Bug by Henry Cole
Toddler to Preschool
Shrinking Mouse by Pat Hutchins
Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh
Circus Shapes by Stuart J. Murphy
You Are Not Small by Anna Kang
Preschool to School-age
Inside Outside Upside Down by Stan and Jan Berenstain (The Berenstain Bears series)
Note: This one is also great for location/position words
Albert is Not Scared by Eleanor May
Note: Love this one for location/position words
Elephants Aloft by Kathi Appelt
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Have You Seen My Monster by Steven Light
Note: Great for shapes
Snippets: A story about paper shapes by Diane Alber
Lucy in the City by Julie Dillemuth
Note: Written by a spatial cognition geographer…she specializes in writing books that promote spatial thinking!
Follow That Map! By Scot Ritchie
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
Me on the Map by Joan Sweeney
Zoom by Istvan Banyai
Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai
There is also one book I need to mention because it has been a HUGE hit with my toddler. It is the interactive and foldable book titled Schoolies: School House by Ellen Crimi-Trent.
Take a look at the few pictures of the book and you will see just how amazing these interactive books can be! (There I go rhyming again). You can include so many spatial words with this one because it’s a book and toy in one! The cut-outs or any other small toy can walk “through” doors and see “through” the windows. You can talk about the shapes of the rooms, doors, windows, and items in the school. You can describe the characteristics of the shapes. You can talk about the classroom space…the “narrow” rooms or the “wide” lunchroom. And, of course, you can talk about positions and locations (ex: “the picture is hanging next to the doorway,” “the owl will sit on the chair in the corner, next to the blackboard,” or “let’s close the door behind the owl.”).
As you can imagine, playing with a doll house provides many opportunities for talking about the space, location/position, and describing the objects and rooms in the house. You can arrange furniture in various parts of the house, position dolls/toys/figurines along with the furniture, move objects and toys around the different rooms of the house, talk about the objects and dolls in relation to each other and to the rooms of the doll house. Doll houses CAN get pretty expensive and do take up a lot of space. There are smaller options like this portable one or this one. And remember to check out ebay.com or craigslist.com in your area for deals!
DRAWING & PAINTING
Kids love to doodle, draw, and paint. They get excited by using different colors and choosing which crayon, color pencil, marker, or paint brush to go with. You can use that excitement to their advantage by infusing this creative time with spatial talk. You can describe the characteristics of what they are drawing or painting (ex: “look at that straight line” or “should we give that triangle it’s last corner and close the shape?”). You can draw alongside them and name and describe what you’re drawing. You can use finger paints, which are often exciting for kiddos (some kiddos with sensory challenges may not be up for this, so use your judgment).
MOVEMENT GAMES & DANCING
Our bodies are a powerful tool for learning. Many children learn really well through kinesthetic and tactile means, which just means through physical activity or touch.
You and the child can walk, jump, crawl around in a circle or any shape you wish and name it (ex. “follow me to make a triangle” or “lets walk in parallel lines.”). You can play a game of “Simon Says” and give instructions with spatial concepts (ex: “Simon says spin around” or “Simon says turn to the left” or “Simon says go to the nearest corner of the room”). When on the playground or home, you can play hide and seek and describe where you see the child or, when they find you, describe where they found you (ex. “I see you under the slide” or “I can’t believe you found me behind the bench”).
Then there’s dancing! Not only is it a really positive way to release energy and get creative for kids, it’s a great spatial activity. While dancing around with the child you can (you guessed it) describe your movements, you can have the child follow dance moves you tell them to do and have them tell you what to do using spatial words, or listen to kid songs which require movement (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes!).
Bath time is a great time to get some spatial talk in because a child is typically relaxed and familiar with this routine. There’s probably a few toys in the bathtub that they already enjoy playing with. There’s water which allows for a lot of spatial talk. It only requires you to play and talk along as they enjoy their bath. For example, you can say things like “the duck with dive under water now” or “the boat will swim through the whole bathtub and come out on the opposite end.”
Play-Dough / Modeling Clay
I know what you’re thinking. Both a blessing and a curse as far as play value versus mess. If you can get past the tiny bits of play-dough scattered around, it’s a wonderful play activity to reinforce spatial reasoning skills. You can build shapes out of it. You can manipulate those shapes and turn them into other shapes with the slice of the many play-dough accessories out there. You can talk about how the shapes changed from one to another, compare and contrast the characteristics of what has been made, and discuss how those items relate to one another. Dare you mix colors (GASP!), you can show the concept of inside/outside/within by enveloping one color with another.
Ex: “Let’s slice this sphere in half and look inside. Ooooh, if I look at the inside of each half, I see the shape of a circle!”
“Let’s turn this piece of play-doh into a long cylinder by rolling it and cutting off the ends on each side”
“My circle is flatter than yours. Your circle is wider than mine!”
“My cookie (pretend) is on the plate and the plate is between your two cars”
There are more ways to stimulate spatial intelligence in children. Think talking spatial talk while folding paper and making paper airplanes or doing origami, playing Tetris, doing photography, map reading or creating, “I’m thinking of an object”/ “I Spy” games in the car or in any environment, and treasure hunts by hiding a toy and having the child find it by giving him instructions with spatial language and having him do the same, or having the child ask questions with spatial language to figure out where the toy is.
Also, for pre-school and school-age children, pbskids.org offers many fun games geared towards spatial abilities that can be played from an electronic device. I have listed a few games below:
GESTURE, GESTURE, GESTURE
Gesturing is a powerful tool for a child’s learning whether you are talking, playing, or both. It means using your hands and fingers to express ideas, and it works wonders on helping children (and adults) understand and remember concepts. Gestures have been shown to help people think through and solve problems more quickly. Babies seem to learn language faster within households where hands are used frequently to refer to and help explain concepts.
And gesturing sure does help with spatial reasoning skills! For example, when we mentally map out how we will get to where we are planning to go and combine that mental mapping with hand gestures too, we tend to remember that route with greater accuracy than just using mental imagery alone. As some research points to, this is because using gestures WITH speech uses up less of our working memory than using speech alone. Working memory refers to the type of memory that processes information short-term. Lessening the load on our working memory frees up more long-term memory capability and allows us to remember things more…well…long-term. Isn’t the brain fascinating?! Find out more about working memory at the Child Mind Institute.
So when you are talking spatial talk to kids, try to help them understand and visualize by doing things like tracing your fingers along objects and shapes as you describe them and mimic shapes and concepts with your hands.
For example, as you say “this triangle has three sides” you can trace your finger along the three sides to help them remember. Here is an example below.
If you want to help them remember and understand the concept of two lines being parallel, as you talk about it you can bend one hand in front of your chest and bend the other one on top of that hand with a space in between to show what two parallel lines may look like.
And remember, baby steps…for all involved. You don’t need to do all of these things right away. In fact, if you’ve never given spatial reasoning much thought, it will feel overwhelming. Choose a few recommendations from this post and get your feet wet just talking, playing, and gesturing the spatial way.
So, hero, if you made it to the end of this post, you have the patience of a saint AND, perhaps even more importantly, you are now ready to kick some serious spatial reasoning butt to help children thrive!