Spatial intelligence in children:

Making kids smarter through play, talk, and practice

© 2011-2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Spatial intelligence is crucial for many tasks, yet it's often neglected at school.

Can we improve visuo-spatial ability? Experiments indicate that we can. Here's what every parent needs to know.

Spatial intelligence, or visuo-spatial ability, has been defined "the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images" (Lohman 1996).

It's what we do when we visualize shapes in our "mind's eye."

It's the mental feat that architects and engineers perform when they design buildings. The capacity that permits a chemist to contemplate the three-dimensional structure of a molecule, or a surgeon to navigate the human body.

It's what Michelangelo used when he visualized a future sculpture trapped inside a lump of stone.

It's also the mode of thought we use to imagine different visual perspectives. Are these two shapes different? Or are they identical and merely oriented differently?

This is a classic mental rotation test – one measure of spatial intelligence. Another test presents a figure made of blocks, and asks the test taker to create an exact copy.

Such skills are only one aspect of a person's overall intelligence. But research suggests that spatial thinking is an important predictor of achievement in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Wai et al 2009; Uttal et al 2013).

The development of "number sense" and spatial thinking are closely tied, and early spatial intelligence predicts a child's performance in mathematics (Newcombe et al 2015; Verdine et al 2014).

Young children who are better at visualizing spatial relationships develop stronger arithmetic abilities in primary school (Zhang et al 2014; Gilligan et al 2017; Verdine et al 2017).

Middle school students who are good at mental rotation are more likely to achieve in science classes (Ganley et al 2014).

There is even evidence that early spatial ability predicts a young child's reading skills (Franceschini et al 2012).

So clearly spatial skills matter. Is there anything we can do to boost visuo-spatial ability? 

People often assume that spatial intelligence is a biologically-determined cognitive trait, a gift you either have or don’t. This attitude may stem, in part, from observed sex differences.

Numerous studies report that males possess superior mental rotation skills. There is also evidence that spatial ability is linked with the amount of testosterone a fetus encounters in the womb (Puts et al 2007; Pintzka et al 2015).

In a recent experiment on 42 women, researchers found they could temporarily boost mental rotation skills by giving volunteers a single, small dose of testosterone (Pintzka et al 2015). 

But whether or not the sex difference in mental rotation is influenced by hormones, there is compelling evidence showing that people can enhance their spatial abilities with practice.

And the results can be dramatic (Feng et al 2008; Wright et al 2008; DeLisi et al 2002; Cherney et al 2014):

After a relatively brief training period (ranging from hours to a few weeks), people of both sexes sharpen their skills. And the gender gap? It narrows or disappears.

How to improve spatial intelligence

For an example of training that works, consider this study by Rebecca Wright and her colleagues (2008).

The researchers recruited 38 young adults at Harvard – about 50% of whom were female -- and tested the volunteers on two tasks:

  1. mental rotation, and
  2. a mental paper-folding task, in which participants had to mentally "fold up" a paper template and predict its appearance.

At baseline, there were sex differences. The women made more errors on the spatial rotation task. The men made more errors on the mental paper-folding task.

But after 21 days of daily training (practicing each type of task), everybody got better. And the error rates converged. Men and women were now equally good at both spatial tasks.

Similar results have been reported in other experiments where adults were randomly assigned to practice spatial skills by playing certain action video games.

One key study found that undergraduates improved visual attention and mental rotation skills after only 10 hours of playing a 3-D, first-person shooter action video game. Overall, women made the biggest gains, and they maintained them 5 months later (Feng et al 2008).

Researchers have also trained children to improve their spatial intelligence.

David Tzuriel and Gila Egozi (2010) tested the mental rotation abilities of 116 first graders (average age, 6.5 years), and randomly assigned about half of them to a training program designed to help kids observe, transform, and keep track of geometric shapes in their "mind's eye."

The remaining children were assigned to an alternative, non-spatial training program.

At the beginning of the study, boys outperformed girls. But after only 8 weekly sessions, the girls in the spatial skills training program had caught up. The gender difference was gone.

Another experimental study found that brief spatial training can boost a child's performance in mathematics (Cheng and Mix 2013).

After a single, 20-minute session of practice with mental rotation puzzles, kids (ages 8-6) earned higher scores on a math test compared with control-group peers.

The trained students became particularly good at algebraic problems, like "2 + ? = 7." Researchers speculate that spatial training made it easier for kids to visualize and rearrange these equations in a more familiar format ( e.g., "7 - 2 = ?").

In addition, a growing body of research suggests kids can improve their spatial abilities by engaging in structured block play -- the sort of play where children recreate physical structures by following a model or blueprint.

In one study, Sharlene Newman and her colleagues assigned 28 children (aged 8) to one of two training groups.

  • Half the kids participated in five, 30-minute sessions of structured block play.
  • The other children spent the same amount of time playing the word game,  "Scrabble."

Before and after training, the researchers scanned the children's brains (using fMRI technology) while the kids solved mental rotation tasks. How did task performance and brain activity change after training?

Unlike children in the "Scrabble" control group, kids who'd participated in the structured block play sessions showed statistically significant improvements in reaction time and accuracy.

They also showed changes in brain activity between the first and second brain scans. Post-training, they showed more activity in brain regions linked with spatial processing and spatial working memory (Newman et al 2016).

So we have good evidence that practice boosts spatial skills, which may explain why construction play is linked with childhood spatial ability. But that's not all. It appears that kids also benefit from our conversation.

Talking with children: How your vocabulary influences the development of spatial intelligence

People often find it easier to think about a concept when they have a word for it. Do kids perform better on spatial tasks when we provide them with the right linguistic tools? Studies suggest we can boost a child's spatial intelligence by exposing him or her to a rich array of spatial terms.

First, there are clear links between spatial intelligence and spatial vocabulary. In one study, preschoolers who knew more spatial words (like between, above, below, and near) were better at reproducing spatial designs with blocks (Verdine et al 2014). This was true even after controlling for a child's overall vocabulary, suggesting that specifically spatial terms help kids think in 3-D.

Second, there's evidence that kids perform better on spatial tasks when we supply them with helpful words. For instance, consider this experiment by Jeffrey Loewenstein and Dedre Gentner:

A child sees two small bookcases, each with three shelves and three hiding places.

In full view of the child, an adult hides a special card ("the winner") on a shelf of the white bookcase, and then explains where she put it in one of two ways:

  1. by pointing and saying "I put the winner right here," or
  2. by using spatial language "I'm putting the winner on the middle shelf"

Next, the child closes his eyes while the adult hides another card in the blue bookcase. When he opens his eyes, he’s told to look for the second card "in the very same place" on the blue bookcase.

It's a simple test of analogical mapping. But surprisingly, most 3-year-olds had trouble getting it right when the adult merely pointed and said "I put the winner here."

By contrast, kids performed significantly better when they got the directions that included spatial language.

And what about long-term cognitive development? Shannon Pruden and her colleagues (2011) addressed this question by tracking 52 toddlers from the age of 14 months.

In a series of sessions, the researchers watched families at play, and measured the how many spatial words parents used with their children. They also recorded the number of spatial words that the kids spoke, words like circle, triangle, tall, empty, line, end, and little.

Then, when the children were 54 months old, the researchers gave them several nonverbal tests of spatial intelligence, including an early childhood equivalent of the spatial rotation task.

As it turned out, the kids who’d heard many spatial words, and used a lot of spatial language themselves, earned higher test scores.

The effect wasn't huge, and the study didn't control for genetics. Parents and children may share genes that make them both more likely to use spatial talk and to perform well on tests of spatial intelligence.

But the researchers did control for overall parental language input, so it wasn't merely that kids especially talkative parents developed better spatial skills. The type of talk mattered, which makes sense: A rich vocabulary of spatial terms might encourage kids to pay more attention to the spatial information they encounter. And that should help kids learn.

Spatial intelligence activities

What practical steps can we take to help kids develop better spatial skills? A growing body of research suggests that children hone visuo-spatial ability through certain kinds of play.

Read more about the benefits of construction toys, and click here for evidence-based activities and games that foster spatial intelligence in children.

Looking for construction toys? See the suggestions below and these recommendations in the Parenting Science store. A portion of your purchase will help support this site.

References: Spatial intelligence

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Cheng YL and Mix KS. 2013. Spatial training improves children's mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development 15(1). Published online: 04 Oct 2013 DOI:10.1080/15248372.2012.72518.

Cherney ID, Bersted K, Smetter J. 2014. Training spatial skills in men and women. Percept Mot Skills. 2014 Aug;119(1):82-99.

De Lisi R and Wolford JL. 2002. Improving children's mental rotation accuracy with computer game playing. J Genet Psychol. 163(3):272-82.

Feng J, Spence I, Pratt J. 2008. Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychol Sci. 18(10):850-5.

Franceschini S, Gori S, Ruffino M, Pedrolli K, and Facoetti A. 2012. A causal link between visual spatial attention and reading acquisition. Curr Biol. 22(9):814-9.

Ganley CM, Vasilyeva M, Dulaney A. 2014. Spatial ability mediates the gender difference in middle school students' science performance. Child Dev. 85(4):1419-32.

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Images for "Spatial intelligence in children":

Image of children's hands and shapes derived from photo by Nicholas Wang/flickr

Image of sisters with balloons by Roger Churchill/wikimedia commons

Image of brain scan by Jens Langner / wikimedia commons

Image of family with toddler by istock

Content of "Spatial intelligence in children" last modified 9/2017.