girlplayingwithblocksWhat do reading a map, building a block tower and loading the dishwasher have in common? They are all activities that strengthen spatial reasoning, a skill set that is vital to children’s success in math and science.

Research indicates that spatial reasoning skills correlate to children’s early achievement in math and “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers later in life.

According to Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe, spatial thinking is what allows us to mentally “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” In daily life, we use spatial reasoning to read maps, find our way home from the store, interpret diagrams and charts and understand how objects relate to each other — a skill needed for everything from hitting a tennis ball to building a LEGO structure.

And it turns out that early exposure to spatial skills makes a big difference. As Newcombe said, “There is growing evidence that strong spatial reasoning skills in preschool help support math learning in elementary school.”

Luckily, it’s not hard to create a home environment that supports spatial thinking. Here are three simple ways you can help your kids become visual thinkers.

Read and Draw Maps
Aren’t maps becoming obsolete in the age of GPS? Not so fast. Map reading remains a key tool for building children’s spatial reasoning skills and helping them make sense of their world. Here are three fun ways to tap into the benefits of mapping. (For more mapping ideas, including a list of picture books that introduce maps, click here.)

  • Draw a Map: After looking at maps together and talking about how they work, grab some paper and work with your child to draw maps of places you both know well. Start with rooms in your home and then branch out to favorite places such as a local park. Use simple shapes to draw and label objects such as furniture or playground equipment. Take a walk around the block together, looking for landmarks to include in a neighborhood map. As kids get more proficient, encourage them to create maps of imaginary worlds or of places in their favorite books or movies.
  • Treasure Map: After drawing a map of a room together, hide a special object somewhere in the room and then point to its location on the map. If they struggle, use spatial language to give clues, such as “It’s under a pillow” or “It’s inside a cabinet.”
  • Talk about Directions: As you drive or walk together, ask them to anticipate where you need to go next. “Which way do we turn at this stop sign? Right or left?” or “How many stops are left before we get off the subway? Let’s look at the wall map.”

Play with Blocks and Puzzles
According to a 2015 study, children who regularly play with building blocks and jigsaw puzzles have more advanced spatial skills than those who do not play with spatial toys. So it’s worth investing in puzzles and blocks — items that are frequently available at secondhand stores for a reasonable price — encouraging your kids to solve and build. This is particularly important for our daughters: the study also found that “females play less with spatial toys than do males, which arguably accounts for males’ spatial advantages.”

Use Spatial Language
Using spatial language with children can help give them the mental vocabulary they need to better understand their world. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that “preschool children who hear their parents describe the size and shape of objects and then use those words themselves perform better on tests of their spatial skills.”

Sometimes we forget that children are still developing a vocabulary for concepts we take for granted, such as:

  • Shapes (circle, triangle, square)
  • Features of Shapes (bent, edge, corner, twisted)
  • Size (tall, wide, long, short)
  • Location (next to, underneath, above, below, behind, over)

When we help kids develop their spatial skills, we give them a mental framework for understanding how the world — this beautiful, mathematical, scientific world — works. And that, in turn, will help them figure out their place within it.


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About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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