Improving spatial skills in children and teens: Evidence-based activities and tips

© 2011-2012 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 architect, sculptor, and surgeon. But they get relatively little attention at school.

Is your child a natural spatial thinker? Does she easily visualize 3-dimensional shapes in space? Or are spatial tasks more difficult?

As I note elsewhere, studies indicate that people can improve their spatial skills with training, sometimes with dramatic results.

But what are the practical applications of this research?

Here is a list of specific suggestions for fostering spatial skills in children. Some reflect the best guesses of researchers who study the development of spatial skills. Others have been tested in controlled, randomized experiments.

1. Introduce kids to language that describes the spatial world

What happens when babies and toddlers hear words like these?

Big, little, tall, short, fat, thin, thick, empty, tiny, full

Circle, rectangle, octagon, triangle, oval, pentagon

Bent, curvy, straight, flat, edge, pointy, side, line

Does exposure to such language encourage kids to pay attention to shapes and spatial information? It’s seems possible.

And in a recent study, researchers Shannon Pruden and colleagues (2011) documented a link between toddler language exposure and preschool spatial skills.

Babies and toddlers who heard a lot of spatial words, and who used a lot of spatial words --- words that describe the spatial properties of objects -- scored higher on spatial skills tests when they were preschoolers.

For details, see my blog post "Early IQ boost: Beyond language and math."

2. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to practice spatial thinking.

In their review of the research on spatial skills in young children, psychologists Nora Newcombe and Andrea Fricke (2010) note that caregivers “spatial tasks and challenges are everywhere."

You can motivate kids to think spatially by asking questions like

  • Will the groceries fit in one bag?
  • Which way does the sheet fit on the bed?
  • Does the left shoelace go over or under?
  • What shapes do we get if we cut a bagel (lengthwise or crosswise)?

3. Remind children to use their imaginations.

A recent experiment suggests that young children can visualize basic physics problems in very helpful ways. But they need to be reminded to do it.

Amy Joh and colleagues (2011) asked 3-year-olds to predict where a ball would go after they dropped it into a winding tube. The kids were more accurate with their answers when they were reminded to first visualize the ball’s path.

4. Play construction games that challenge kids to recreate a design from a sample or diagram. And don’t forget to talk about it!

The Block Design test is a standard way to measure spatial skills in children. Kids are shown the “blueprints" for a structure and given a set of blocks to recreate it.

You can do the same thing 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 a set of 60 illustrations of structures to be erected. As the name suggests, getting the pieces to balance is difficult, so kids get some hands-on experience with solving balance problems.

Does practice hone skill? That's common sense. And a recent study suggests that parents engage in more spatial talk with their kids when they participate in these match-the-design construction games (Ferrara et al 2011).

5. Encourage kids to gesture.

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 successful (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."

6. Play with tangrams and jigsaw puzzles.

I haven’t seen any experimental studies 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. In a recent longitudinal study, the more frequently young children worked on puzzles before the age of 4, the better they performed on a test of mental transformations of 2-dimensional shapes when they were 4 and a half (Levine et al 2011).

So educational psychologists recommend jigsaw puzzles. In addition, 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. Encourage kids to use, create, and explain maps.

Most kids are ready to learn simple lessons about maps by the age of 3 or 4 years (Shusterman et al 2008; Vasilyeva and Huttenlocher 2004). 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.

Older kids can handle more information. But here's an important tip: Kids use maps more accurately when they are required to explain their choices.

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).

8. Practice mental rotation skills.

As I note here, children and adults have improved their spatial skills through repeated practice on mental rotation tasks. This suggests that kids might benefit from experience with pencil-and-paper “brain teasers" that involve mental rotation.

9. Play Tetris.

This classic video game, once extremely popular, is still useful as a way to hone spatial skills.

In a recent experiment, Melissa Terlecki and colleagues (2008) asked undergraduates to take weekly practice tests of mental rotation, and some of these students were also randomly assigned to spend an hour each week playing Tetris.

Both groups made big improvements on the mental rotation task, but unlike the non-gamers, the students with the supplemental Tetris training showed additional improvements on other, related tests of spatial thinking.

10. Try 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

We don’t hear a lot of good things about video games. Among other things, people are concerned about the negative effects that too much game time might 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 – conducted by 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 relatively non-violent first-person shooter games do exist for teens, such as Mirror's Edge and Greg Hastings Tournament Paintball. Will commercial video game manufacturers develop new educational games, non-violent games specifically designed to improve the player’s spatial skills? That would be helpful.

12. Be prepared for slow progress.

In a popular article for American Education, Nora Newcombe (2010) notes 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 in the beginning. 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

Chu M and Kita S. 2011. The nature of gestures' beneficial role in spatial problem solving. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2011 Feb;140(1):102-16.

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.

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.

Kastens KA and Liben LS. 2007. Eliciting self-explanations improves children's performance on a field-based map skills task. Cognition and Instruction, 25, 45-74.

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.

Levine SC, Ratliff KR, Huttenlocher J, and Cannon J. 2011. Early puzzle play: A predictor of preschoolers' spatial transformation skill. Dev Psychol. 2011 Oct 31. [Epub ahead of print]

Newcombe NS. 2010. Picture this: Increasing math and science learning by improving spatial thinking. American Educator: Summer 2010, 29-43.

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

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 by Nevit Dilmen / wikimedia commons

Content last modified 11/12

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