I recently had the privilege of watching my granddaughter, at 9 months, negotiate the positioning of her body. I could see the wheels turning as she tried to move into a sitting position, thinking “if I do this, this might happen…” As she pulled herself up into what I refer to as the ‘majestic triangle,’ she brought her hands together celebrating the growing sense of herself in space. She was really thinking spatially – developing an intuitive understanding of shape and space, a skill that is necessary to navigate the world around us on a daily basis.
Spatial thinking begins in infancy and develops over a lifetime. As infants reach and grasp for things, they are increasing the number of neurons in their developing brains. When a baby crawls under a small table and ducks his head, he is developing spatial sense. As a preschooler unpacks and repacks a toy bin, she is thinking spatially. Puzzle making, navigating an obstacle course, packing a backpack, all require thinking in this specific way.
Research shows that if we are not naturally gifted at thinking spatially, we can improve our skills with practice. And we, as parents and educators, can help our children improve their spatial thinking abilities by giving them challenges and opportunities. Here are a few tips and ideas:
- One of the most important ways you can begin the process is by using spatial language and gestures with your youngsters – big and small, up and down, near and far, rotate, turn.
- Take a walk through your office and pick up a stapler, a pencil cup, a ruler and a paper clip. Position these objects on a large sheet of paper and trace around them. The next time your 4-year-old is looking for an activity, roll out the paper and put the objects in a basket, inviting her to match the items to their outlines.
- Gather a large plastic container and many small items, like ping-pong or golf balls. Ask your kindergartener to predict how many balls will fit in the container. Try the challenge again with other objects of different shapes and sizes.
- Save your cardboard jewelry boxes. When you have a critical mass, line a shoebox with them in a way that 10-12 boxes fit perfectly. Dump out the jewelry boxes and present your 5- or 6-year-old with the challenge of finding the way to fit them into the shoebox.
- The next time you go on a trip, invite your 6-year-old to pack his own suitcase. (This is not only good for spatial thinking, it’s great for his sense of self!)
- When your 8-year-old accompanies you to the grocery store, ask the clerk if she can do your bagging.
- On a hike, discuss navigation and have your child practice using a compass and a map.