10 tips for improving spatial skills in children and teens

© 2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Spatial skills predict a young person’s achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They are crucial for the mechanic, visual artist, architect, and surgeon.

Yet traditional schooling does relatively little to foster the development of these abilities, and that's troubling. As I note elsewhere, studies 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 is a list of evidence-based tactics and activities.

1. Encourage active, physical exploration of the real world

Experiments suggest that infants can learn rapidly about three dimensional shapes. Within days of birth, babies seem to understand that the apparent size of an object will change as it moves closer or farther away. Newborns also show signs of visually recognizing objects they have previously touched, but not seen. This suggests babies can map tactile information onto some sort of internal, visual simulation of the 3-D world (Streri et al 2013; Slater et al 1990).

So the capacity is there, but it doesn't develop by magic. Children need raw data. They need to feel shapes and textures, and explore objects hands-on. By 9 months, researchers have detected differences in the spatial skills of infants. The babies with superior mental rotation abilities are the ones who spend more time handling and investigating objects (Schwarzer et al 2013). Other experiments indicate that hands-on experiences with objects can improve a toddler's ability to track items through space (Frick and Wang 2014). When we insist that kids "look but don't touch" we are likely hampering the development of spatial skills.

2. Seize everyday opportunities for spatial thinking and spatial talk

In their review of the research on spatial skills in young children, psychologists Nora Newcombe and Andrea Frick (2010) note that opportunities to practice spatial skills are everywhere. Adults can stimulate spatial thinking by asking kids questions, and engaging them in conversation:

"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? For young children, these questions are challenging and provide ample opportunities to learn and think about space."

These conversations are also opportunities for children to learn new vocabulary -- words that will help kids reason about spatial properties, like over and under. Tall and short. Bent and curvy. Triangle, rectangle, cube, and sphere. Common sense suggests that kids who learn such terms are more likely to use them when they talk, and that will help them tap into the power of verbal explanation. Studies show that children learn concepts better when they are asked to explain what they discover to other people.

Moreover, longitudinal research hints that youngsters who are chatty about spatial concepts end up with superior spatial skills. When Shannon Pruden and her colleagues tracked the development of 52 babies, the researchers found that early exposure to spatial language predicted higher spatial ability later on. Kids who had heard and used a lot of spatial terminology scored higher on spatial skills tests when they 42 months old. For details, see my blog post "Early IQ boost: Beyond language and math."

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 and create with blocks. For more information, see this article and the accompanying list of tips for sparking a young child's interest in block play.

4. Introduce construction games that challenge kids to "match the design"

Research hints that a particular form of block play, called structured 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 recent experiments, 8-year-old children showed measurable improvements in their mental rotation abilities after just five, 30-minute play sessions. Post-training, they also showed changes in brain activity, suggesting that these kids 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, interlocking plastic blocks (like Lego or Mega Bloks) , Keva planks, Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys.

For the budding engineer, I also like the 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.

And 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. Encourage children to use and create maps

By the age of 3 or 4, most kids are ready to learn simple lessons about maps. For instance, young children can learn to interpret a map of their living room floor plan, and then use a map to show where, in the real room, they have hidden a toy (Shusterman et al 2008; Vasilyeva and Huttenlocher 2004).

Older kids can handle more complex maps, and they benefit from structured mapping activities, especially ones that require them to explain their choices.

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 (like a flagpole) and (2) place stickers on their maps to indicate where these features could be found (Kastens and Liben 2007). Some kids were quite accurate. Other kids were far off the mark. But when kids were asked to write down what clues they used to decide where the stickers should go, they performed much better.

It’s a finding that’s consistent with other studies: Kids learn better when they have to explain how they solve problems.

Do such mapping exercises improve a child’s general spatial skills, and, if so, how? That’s not yet clear. But the sticker-placement study suggests that guided activities force children to pay close attention to spatial cues and shifting visual perspectives. They’re practicing spatial thinking, and they are learning how to read maps – which is an important spatial skill.

So researchers and educators promote the use of maps with children. But remember to start with simple tasks, and realize that it’s normal for kids to have trouble translating their first-person spatial knowledge into a bird’s eye view. In one study, less than 30% of first and second graders could identify their own school’s distinctive U-shaped building plan from a bird’s eye view map (Liben and Downs 1989).

Wondering how to begin? For young children, a good resource is the book, As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Maps . It helps children think about seeing the world from a bird's eye view. For children in primary school, another helpful book is Loreen Leedy's Mapping Penny's World

6. 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. Read more about tangrams – and find links to several tangram resources -- here.

7. 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."

8. Play action video games (and Tetris too)

We sometimes hear bad things about video games. Some people are concerned about the effects that too much game time can have on a child’s homework performance, physical fitness, and ability to pay attention in school. There is also evidence that violent video games change behavior in undesirable ways, at least in the short-term.

But research suggests that video game technology may have important applications for the training of spatial skills. In several experiments – replicated different research groups – young adults with weak spatial skills have made substantial improvements after relatively brief experience playing high-paced, "first-person shooter" action video games.

If such games sound violent, they usually are. 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, Greg Hastings Paintball, and Pirate Blast. Parents looking for age-appropriate, non-violent first-person shooter games can try searching the Common Sense Media website for reviews.

In addition, you might try the classic 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.

9. Encourage kids to use gestures when solving spatial problems

Experiments demonstrate that adults and children solve problems more readily when they are allowed to gesture. In one study, people were better at performing mental rotation tasks (a key measure of spatial thinking) when they were encouraged to use their hands (Chu and Kita 2011). In another, 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, "The science of gestures: Why it’s good for kids to talk with their hands."

10. 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

For a quick overview of the evidence that we can improve spatial skills with training, see my article, "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 Newcombe’s personal website. Finally, pay a visit to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, Spatial 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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Ehrlich SB, Levine SC, Goldin-Meadow S. 2006. The importance of gesture in children's spatial reasoning. Dev Psychol. 2006 Nov;42(6):1259-68.

Ferrara K, Golinkoff R, Hirsh-Pasek K, Lam W and Newcombe N. 2011. Block Talk: Spatial Language During Block Play. Mind, Brain and Education 5(3): 143-151.

Frick A and Wang SH. 2014. Mental spatial transformations in 14- and 16-month-old infants: effects of action and observational experience. Child Dev. 85(1):278-93.

Joh AS, Jaswal VK, and Keen R. 2011. Imagining a way out of the gravity bias: preschoolers can visualize the solution to a spatial problem. Child Dev. 82(3):744-5.

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Liben LS and Downs RM. 1989. Understanding maps as symbols: The development of map concepts in children. In H. W. Reese (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 22, pp. 145-201). New York: Academic Press.

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Newcombe NS and Fricke A. 2010. Early education for spatial intelligence: Why, what, and how. Mind, Brain, and Education 4(3), 102-111.

Newman SD, Mitchell Hansen T, and Gutierrez A. 2016. An fMRI study of the impact of block building and board games on spatial ability. Frontiers in Psychology 7: 1278. 

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Schwarzer G, Freitag C, and Schum N. 2013. How Crawling and Manual Object Exploration are Related to the Mental Rotation Abilities of 9-Month-Old Infants. Front Psychol. 4:97

Shusterman A, Ah Lee S, Spelke ES. 2008. Young children's spontaneous use of geometry in maps. Dev Sci. 11(2):F1-7.

Slater A, Mattock A, and Brown E. 1990. Size constancy at birth: Newborn infants’ responses to retinal and real size. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 49:314–322.

Terlecki MS and Newcombe NS. 2008. Durable and generalized effects of spatial experience on mental rotation: Gender differences in growth patterns. Applied Cognitive Psychology 22: 996-1013.

Vasilyeva M and Huttenlocher J. 2004. Early development of scaling ability. Dev Psychol. 2004 Sep;40(5):682-90.

image of girl peering through rectangle by Yoshihito / flickr

image of mother and boy by Bill Strain / flickr

image of boy with map by ZIP / wikimedia / flickr

Image of paper icosohedrons by Andrew Turner / flickr

Image of girl by Nevit Dilmen / wikimedia commons

Content last modified 12/16