© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Spatial skills are crucial for success in STEM and the visual arts. So what should we do to improve spatial reasoning?
Studies suggest that kids can hone their skills through a combination of physical exploration, spatial talk, hands-on activities, and explicit instruction.
Can your child rotate an object in your “mind’s eye”? Figure out what it would look like if it were tilted 45 degrees? 60 degrees? 120 degrees?
Can your child use a map? Translate the scale of the map to objects in the real world?
These spatial abilities — called “mental rotation” and “spatial scaling” — help kids reason about shapes, angles, and distances. They also help kids think more clearly and accurately about mathematics (Gilligan et al 2020).
And other spatial skills, like the ability to visualize the cross-section of a three-dimensional object, are crucial in a wide range of problem-solving domains. Architects and visual artists. Biologists and medical workers. Engineers and geologists. They all benefit from strong spatial skills (Cohen and Hegarty 2014).
So it’s little wonder that spatial reasoning scores predict achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Yet traditional schooling does relatively little to foster the development of these capacities, and that’s troubling.
opens in a new windowStudies indicate that people can improve their spatial skills with training, sometimes with dramatic results. What are the practical applications of this research? How can we help kids develop excellent spatial skills? Here’s what the research tells us.
12 evidence-based tactics and activities for developing better spatial skills
1. Encourage active, physical exploration.
As I explain elsewhere, newborns show signs of spatial awareness (Streri et al 2013). And babies as young as 4 months may be capable of mental rotation (Moore and Johnson 2020).
But how do such skills develop? It isn’t by magic.
Experiments confirm that children perform better at spatial reasoning tasks when we permit them to explore and handle objects (Frick and Wang 2014; Slone et al 2018; Moore and Johnson 2020).
For example, in one study, two months of daily block play helped babies improve their ability to recognize the shapes of different objects (Schröder et al 2020).
And in another study, just two minutes of hands-on experience helped infants anticipate how a specific object would appear when viewed from different angles (Möhring and Frick 2013).
So if we want children to hone their spatial intelligence, we should encourage them to move, touch, and tinker.
2. Seize everyday opportunities for spatial thinking and spatial talk.
Nora Newcombe and Andrea Frick have devoted their careers to studying the development of spatial reasoning. And how do these experts suggest we foster spatial skills in children?
By making kids aware of the many spatial problems and puzzles we encounter in everyday life.
Ask questions like these, say Newcome and Frick (2010):
- Which way does the sheet fit on the bed?
- Does the left shoelace go over or under—and which one is the left?
- Will the groceries fit in one bag?
- Which shapes do I get if I cut my bagel the other way—and will it still fit in the toaster?
Such questions get kids thinking about spatial relationships. And it also introduces them to essential vocabularly — words like “under” and “over,” “triangle” and “cube.”
Learning such words can help children reason about spatial properties, and it may actually accelerate the development of spatial skills.
For details, see my article, opens in a new window“Spatial intelligence: What is it, and how can we enhance it?”.
3. Provide kids with tools for building structures, and boost enthusiasm by getting involved yourself.
An array of evidence suggests that children develop better spatial skills when they build structures with blocks and other construction toys.
For more information, see opens in a new windowthis Parenting Science article. It reviews the research in favor of block play, and includes tips for getting your child interested in construction.
4. Introduce construction games that challenge kids to “match the design.”
Studies hint that a particular form of block play, called opens in a new windowstructured block play, may be especially valuable. This is when kids are shown the “blueprints” for a structure, and given a set of blocks to recreate it.
In experiments, 8-year-old children showed measurable improvements in their mental rotation abilities after just five, 30-minute play sessions.
Post-training, these kids also showed changes in brain activity, suggesting that that structured block play had changed the way they processed spatial information (Newman et al 2016).
You can create your own sessions of structured block play at home with wooden blocks or interlocking plastic blocks (like Lego or Mega Bloks).
For the budding engineer, I also like the opens in a new windowFoxMind Equilibrio Game, a set of 18 plastic blocks that come with 60 illustrations of structures to be erected. As the name suggests, part of the challenge is getting the structures to remain in balance, so concentration and fine motor skills are required. (Full disclosure: Parenting Science will receive a small portion of the proceeds for any purchase made through this sales link.)
But whatever your chosen medium, don’t forget to keep up the conversation. “Match-the-design” construction games may be helpful, in part, because they stimulate spatial talk (Ferrara et al 2011).
5. Teach kids how to sketch shapes and diagrams
Teachers have long known that sketching can be an excellent way to learn. When we generate our own illustrations of a structure, system, or concept, we come to understand it more deeply.
It’s true for learning scientific concepts, and it’s true for spatial concepts too. It’s much easier for kids to learn about shapes if they have practiced drawing these shapes themselves! And the benefits of drawing continue throughout life.
In one study, researchers found that college students improved their comprehension of 3-D diagrams after they’d practiced drawing their own, 3-D sketches (Gagnier et al 2017).
But students don’t all benefit to the same degree from creating sketches and diagrams. The quality of the work matters (Scheiter et al 2017).
Students need to learn the rudiments of draftsmanship. They need guidance about what features to focus on when creating an illustration. They to learn how to draw basic 2-D and 3-D shapes. They need to learn how to draw.
When students get this sort of support, they learn more. For example, researchers have found that elementary school kids learn more about science when they receive guidance for producing scientific drawings (Van Meter and Garner 2005).
So we shouldn’t ignore basic draftmanship skills as part of a child’s education. You don’t have to be a Michelangelo to learn how to draw a cube, create a pie chart, or sketch a functional diagram of the circulatory system. It just takes a little guidance and practice.
6. Provide kids with explicit instruction in mental rotation.
What else can we teach our children? Can we actively guide them through the process of mental rotation? Help them imagine what shapes would look after moving them around?
Yes. That’s what Katie Gilligan and her colleagues have shown (Gilligan et al 2020). The researchers created this brief, instructional video about how to practice mental rotation. See for yourself:
Then they tested the effectiveness of the video in an experimental study of 8-year-olds.
After attentively watching just one instructional video, kids became significantly more proficient at mental rotation.
And, relative to kids in a control group, these children also showed gains in at least one type of mathematical thinking: They improved their ability to solve “missing term” problems, or simple algebra (“3 + ? = 4”).
7. Encourage children to use and create maps.
What kind of maps? I’m not talking so much about maps of the world, or cross-country road maps, though of course it’s important for kids to learn how to use such maps.
Instead, I’m talking about maps of the familiar spaces that kids inhabit on a daily basis.
As it turns out, even very young children are ready to begin learning about such small-scale maps.
For instance, experiments confirm that 4-year-olds can learn to interpret a map of their living room floor plan. They can use they map to show another person where, in the real room, they have hidden a toy (Shusterman et al 2008; Vasilyeva and Huttenlocher 2004).
And older kids can handle more complex mapping activities.
For example, in a study of American 4th graders, kids were given incomplete maps of their school yard and asked to
(1) locate unmarked features in the school yard (like a flagpole), and then
(2) add those features to the map — by placing stickers in the correct location on the map.
Some kids were quite accurate, even on their first try. Other kids were far off the mark.
How can we help kids improve? This same study offers an answer: Make kids more aware of spatial cues by asking them to justify their decisions.
In another variant of the task, the researchers asked kids to jot down the clues and landmarks they had used to decide where the stickers should go on the map. And this extra step improved the children’s accuracy (Kastens and Liben 2007).
It’s a finding that’s consistent with other studies: opens in a new windowKids learn better when they have to explain how they solve problems.
Looking for resources to help teach youngsters about maps? For very young children, I like
opens in a new windowAs the Crow Flies (Rise and Shine). It helps children think about seeing the world from a bird’s eye view. For children in primary school, another helpful book is opens in a new windowMapping Penny’s World.
You might find these books in your local library or bookstore. You can also purchase them through these links from Amazon, in which case a portion of your purchase will benefit this website.
8. Try origami.
Have you ever thought through the steps required to construct a box from a flat piece of cardboard? Or tried to predict how a paper object would look after folding one of it’s faces?
People who are good at such tasks — folding in the mind’s eye — have strong spatial skills. But what’s especially interesting is that “mental folding” ability predicts a student’s performance in STEM fields.
For instance, a study of British primary school students found that kids with stronger mental folding abilities scored better on tests biology, physics, and chemistry (Hodgkiss et al 2018).
And researchers suspect they can boost mental folding ability by training kids in origami — the traditional Japanese art of paper-folding. In a preliminary study, school children improved their performance on a very challenging mental folding task after just a few hours of origami lessons (Burte et al 2017).
9. Expose kids to tangrams and other spatial puzzles.
I haven’t seen any controlled experiments testing the effects of tangrams or jigsaw puzzles on the development of spatial skills. But it seems pretty clear that puzzle-solving ability and spatial intelligence are linked.
For example, in an observational study, researchers tracked the behavior of toddlers from the age of two, and then tested the children’s spatial abilities when they were four and a half. The more frequently kids played with puzzles, the more likely they were to finish the study with high test scores (Levine et al 2011).
The U.S. National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics promotes the use of tangrams to teach spatial skills. You can read more about tangrams — and find a printable template for making you own tangrams — in this Parenting Science article.
10. Let kids experiment with photography.
As Nora Newcombe points out, photography encourages kids to experiment with different camera angles and different senses of scale (Newcombe 2010).
For ideas to inspire children’s photography projects, see my article, “Digital cameras for kids: Cool tools and windows into the minds of children.”
11. Play action video games (and Tetris, too).
We often hear complaints about video games. People worry about the effects of playing games with violent content. And it’s possible to spend too much time playing video games. Kids can end up neglecting their school work, losing sleep, and missing out on the vital benefits of outdoor play.
But video games can also be excellent educational tools. And certain types of games can hone a player’s spatial skills.
One type is the “first person shooter” action game.
As I explain opens in a new windowelsewhere, young adults with weak spatial skills have made substantial improvements after playing such games.
Are the games violent? Usually. But it’s the spatial information, not the violence that makes these games useful for spatial training. And some non-violent first-person shooter games do exist — like Mirror’s Edge and Slime Rancher. Try searching the opens in a new windowCommon Sense Media website for reviews of kid-friendly games.
Another beneficial video game Tetris.
In an experiment on college undergraduates, Melissa Terlecki and colleagues (2008) asked undergraduates to take weekly practice tests of mental rotation. In addition, some students were randomly assigned to spend an hour each week playing Tetris. Other students were assigned to play a non-spatial computer game (Solitaire).
At the end of twelve weeks, both groups had made big improvements on the mental rotation task.
But unlike the non-gamers, the students with the supplemental Tetris training also showed transfer effects — improvements on other, related tests of spatial thinking. These improvements were still evident when the students were re-tested 2-4 months later.
12. Encourage kids to use gestures when solving spatial problems.
Adults and children tend to solve problems more readily when they are allowed to gesture.
For example, in one experiment, people were better at performing mental rotation tasks when they were encouraged to use their hands (Chu and Kita 2011).
And in another study, 5-year-olds who spontaneously gestured during spatial problem-solving were more like to get the right answer (Ehrlich et al 2006).
Read more about the many cognitive benefits of gesturing in my article, opens in a new window“The science of gestures: Why it’s good for kids to talk with their hands.”
And a final word to the wise: Be prepared for gradual progress!
In a popular article for American Education, Nora Newcombe (2010) stresses that students with poor spatial skills are often slow to improve – in the beginning.
So if you start a program of spatial skills training, don’t be discouraged if kids don’t show improvements right away. It may take 6 sessions or more before you notice a difference.
More reading about spatial skills
For a quick overview of the evidence that we can improve spatial skills with training, see my article, opens in a new window“Spatial intelligence: Why training matters.”
In addition, check out the writings of Nora S. Newcombe, a professor of cognitive development and expert in the development of spatial cognition. Her article “Picture this: Increasing math and science learning by improving spatial thinking” is a non-technical review for school teachers.
For the academically-inclined, I also recommend her review “Early education for spatial intelligence: Why, what and how,” coauthored with Andrea Frick. You can download this, on many other academic papers, at opens in a new windowNewcombe’s personal website.
And if you’re a teacher eager to adopt spatial learning elements into your curriculum, check out opens in a new windowthis paper by Kristin Gagnier and Kelly Fisher. It provides you with advice about how to create “spatially enhanced lesson plans.”
Finally, pay a visit to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, opens in a new windowSpatial Intelligence and Learning Center, an impressive online resource created by researchers and associated with the National Science Foundation.
References: Tips for improving spatial skills in children and teens
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Cohen and Hegarty 2014. Visualizing cross sections: Training spatial thinking using interactive animations and virtual objects. Learning and Individual Differences 33: 63–71.
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title image of child looking at jigsaw pieces by RecycleMan / istock
image of toddler reaching for shape by Cicy / istock
image of girl peering through rectangle by opens in a new windowYoshihito / flickr
image of 3-D shapes by Luisrftc
image of kids reading map by monkeybusinessimages / istock
image of origami fox by Svetlana Khoruzhaia / istock
Content last modified 9/2020