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Bettering spatial abilities in youngsters and teenagers: 12 suggestions

December 13, 2023
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Spatial skills are crucial for success in STEM and the visual arts. What can we do help kids develop strong spatial reasoning abilities? Happily, a growing body of research points the way. Improving spatial skills is possible through a combination of physical exploration, spatial, talk, hands-on activities, and explicit instruction.

Can your child rotate an object in his or her “mind’s eye”? Figure out what it would look like if it were tilted 45 degrees? 60 degrees? 120 degrees? Can your child use a map? Translate the scale of the map to objects in the real world?

These spatial abilities — called “mental rotation” and “spatial scaling” — help kids reason about shapes, angles, and distances. They also help kids think more clearly and accurately about mathematics (Gilligan et al 2020).

And other spatial skills, like the ability to visualize the cross-section of a three-dimensional object, are crucial in a wide range of problem-solving domains. Architects and visual artists. Biologists and medical workers. Engineers and geologists. They all benefit from strong spatial skills (Cohen and Hegarty 2014).

So it’s little wonder that spatial reasoning scores predict achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Yet traditional schooling does relatively little to foster the development of these capacities, and that’s troubling.

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’s what the research tells us.

1. Encourage active, physical exploration.

infant reaching for shape toy held by mother

As I explain elsewhere, newborns show signs of spatial awareness (Streri et al 2013). And babies as young as 3-4 months may be capable of mental rotation (Moore and Johnson 2020; Enge et al 2023).

But how do such skills develop? It isn’t by magic.

Experiments confirm that children perform better at spatial reasoning tasks when we permit them to explore and handle objects (Frick and Wang 2014; Slone et al 2018; Moore and Johnson 2020).

For example, in one study, two months of daily block play helped babies improve their ability to recognize the shapes of different objects (Schröder et al 2020).

And in another study, just two minutes of hands-on experience helped infants anticipate how a specific object would appear when viewed from different angles (Möhring and Frick 2013).

So if we want children to hone their spatial intelligence, we should encourage them to move, touch, and tinker.

2. Seize everyday opportunities for spatial thinking and spatial talk.

Child practicing spatial skills while unpacking groceries with parent

Nora Newcombe and Andrea Frick have devoted their careers to studying the development of spatial reasoning. And how do these experts suggest we foster spatial skills in children?

By making kids aware of the many spatial problems and puzzles we encounter in everyday life.

Ask questions like these, say Newcome and Frick (2010):

  • 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? 

Such questions get kids thinking about spatial relationships. They also introduce children to spatial vocabulary — words like “under” and “over,” “triangle” and “cube.” When kids learn spatial language, it helps them reason about spatial properties, and it may actually accelerate the development of spatial skills. In fact, in one experiment, preschoolers improved their sptial rotation skills after just 5 days of spatial language exposure during play (Casasola et al 2020).

For more information about the connection between language and spatial reasoning, see my article, “Spatial intelligence: What is it, and how can we enhance it?”.

3. Provide kids with tools for building structures, and boost enthusiasm by getting involved yourself.

father and young daughter on the floor, practicing spatial skills by playing with blocks

An array of evidence suggests that children develop better spatial skills when they build structures with blocks and other construction toys. For more information, see this Parenting Science article. It reviews the research in favor of block play, and includes tips for getting your child interested in construction.

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

Studies hint 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 experiments, 8-year-old children showed measurable improvements in their mental rotation abilities after just five, 30-minute play sessions.

Post-training, these kids also showed changes in brain activity, suggesting that that structured block play 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 or interlocking plastic blocks (like Lego® or Mega Bloks®).

For the budding engineer, I also like the FoxMind 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. (Full disclosure: Parenting Science will receive a small portion of the proceeds for any purchase made through this sales link.)

But 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. Teach kids how to sketch shapes and diagrams

3-D shapes, including a sphere, a cone, a cylinder, pyramids, and varius prisms

Teachers have long known that sketching can be an excellent way to learn. When we generate our own illustrations of a structure, system, or concept, we  come to understand it more deeply.

It’s true for learning scientific concepts, and it’s true for spatial concepts too. It’s much easier for kids to learn about shapes if they have practiced drawing these shapes themselves! And the benefits of drawing continue throughout life.

In one study, researchers found that college students improved their comprehension of 3-D diagrams after they’d practiced drawing their own, 3-D sketches (Gagnier et al 2017).

But students don’t all benefit to the same degree from creating sketches and diagrams. The quality of the work matters (Scheiter et al 2017).

Students need to learn the rudiments of draftsmanship. They need guidance about what features to focus on when creating an illustration. They to learn how to draw basic 2-D and 3-D shapes. They need to learn how to draw.

When students get this sort of support, they learn more. For example, researchers have found that elementary school kids learn more about science when they receive guidance for producing scientific drawings (Van Meter and Garner 2005).

So we shouldn’t ignore basic draftmanship skills as part of a child’s education. You don’t have to be a Michelangelo to learn how to draw a cube, create a pie chart, or sketch a functional diagram of the circulatory system. It just takes a little guidance and practice.

6. Provide kids with explicit instruction in mental rotation.

What else can we teach our children? Can we actively guide them through the process of mental rotation? Help them imagine what shapes would look after moving them around?

Yes. That’s what Katie Gilligan and her colleagues have shown (Gilligan et al 2020). The researchers created this brief, instructional video about how to practice mental rotation. Then they tested the effectiveness of the video in an experimental study of 8-year-olds.

What happened? After attentively watching just one instructional video, kids became significantly more proficient at mental rotation. And, relative to kids in a control group, these children also showed gains in at least one type of mathematical thinking: They improved their ability to solve “missing term” problems, or simple algebra (“3 + ? = 4”).

7. Encourage children to use and create maps.

three school kids consulting a map outdoors

What kind of maps? I’m not talking so much about maps of the world, or cross-country road maps, though of course it’s important for kids to learn how to use such maps.

Instead, I’m talking about maps of the familiar spaces that kids inhabit on a daily basis.

As it turns out, even very young children are ready to begin learning about such small-scale maps.

For instance, experiments confirm that 4-year-olds can learn to interpret a map of their living room floor plan. They can use they map to show another person where, in the real room, they have hidden a toy (Shusterman et al 2008; Vasilyeva and Huttenlocher 2004).

And older kids can handle more complex mapping activities.

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 in the school yard (like a flagpole), and then
  2. add those features to the map — by placing stickers in the correct location on the map.

Some kids were quite accurate, even on their first try. Other kids were far off the mark.

How can we help kids improve? This same study offers an answer: Make kids more aware of spatial cues by asking them to justify their decisions. In another variant of the task, the researchers asked kids to jot down the clues and landmarks they had used to decide where the stickers should go on the map. And this extra step improved the children’s accuracy (Kastens and Liben 2007).

It’s a finding that’s consistent with other studies: Kids learn better when they have to explain how they solve problems. And a recent study points to another connection. Young children perform better on map-reading tasks when they have a stronger command of spatial language (Giancola et al 2023). So we may help kids master maps by engaging them in everyday spatial talk.

Looking for resources to help teach youngsters about maps? I like these books, which you can purchase from Amazon via these links:

(Any purchases made using these links will earn a commission for Parenting Science.)

8. Try origami.

visual sequence of paper folds required to create an origami fox

Have you ever thought through the steps required to construct a box from a flat piece of cardboard? Or tried to predict how a paper object would look after folding one of it’s faces?

People who are good at such tasks — folding in the mind’s eye — have strong spatial skills. But what’s especially interesting is that “mental folding” ability predicts a student’s performance in STEM fields.

For instance, a study of British primary school students found that kids with stronger mental folding abilities scored better on tests biology, physics, and chemistry (Hodgkiss et al 2018).

And researchers suspect they can boost mental folding ability by training kids in origami — the traditional Japanese art of paper-folding. In a preliminary study, school children improved their performance on a very challenging mental folding task after just a few hours of origami lessons (Burte et al 2017).

9. Expose kids to tangrams and other spatial puzzles.

child's hands assembling a tangram figure

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. You can read more about tangrams — and find a printable template for making you own tangrams — in this Parenting Science article.

10. 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.”

11. Play action video games (and Tetris, too).

We often hear complaints about video games. People worry about the effects of playing games with violent content. And it’s possible to spend too much time playing video games. Kids can end up neglecting their school work, losing sleep, and missing out on the vital benefits of outdoor play.

But video games can also be excellent educational tools. And certain types of games can hone a player’s spatial skills.

One type is the “first person shooter” action game.

As I explain elsewhere, young adults with weak spatial skills have made substantial improvements after playing such games.

Are the games violent? Usually. But it’s the spatial information, not the violence that makes these games useful for improving spatial skills. And some non-violent first-person shooter games do exist — like Mirror’s Edge and Slime Rancher. Try searching the Common Sense Media website for reviews of kid-friendly games.

Another beneficial 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.

12. Encourage kids to use gestures when solving spatial problems.

Adults and children tend to solve problems more readily when they are allowed to gesture.

For example, in one experiment, people were better at performing mental rotation tasks when they were encouraged to use their hands (Chu and Kita 2011). And in another study, 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.”

And a final word to the wise: 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 about improving spatial skills

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.

And if you’re a teacher eager to adopt spatial learning elements into your curriculum, check out this paper by Kristin Gagnier and Kelly Fisher. It provides you with advice about how to create “spatially enhanced lesson plans.”

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

Burte H, Gardony AL, Hutton A, Taylor HA. 2017. Think3d!: Improving mathematics learning through embodied spatial training. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2(1):13.

Casasola M, Wei WS, Suh DD, Donskoy P, and Ransom A. 2020. Children’s exposure to spatial language promotes their spatial thinking. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 149:1116–1136.

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.

Cohen and Hegarty 2014. Visualizing cross sections: Training spatial thinking using interactive animations and virtual objects. Learning and Individual Differences 33: 63–71.

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.

Enge A, Kapoor S, Kieslinger AS, Skeide MA. 2023. A meta-analysis of mental rotation in the first years of life. 26(6):e13381.

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.

Gagnier KM, Atit K, Ormand CJ, Shipley TF. 2017. Comprehending 3D Diagrams: Sketching to Support Spatial Reasoning. Top Cogn Sci. 9(4):883-901.

Giancola M, Pino MC, Riccio V, Piccardi L, D’Amico S. 2023. Preschoolers’ Perceptual Analogical Reasoning and Map Reading: A Preliminary Study on the Mediating Effect of Spatial Language. Children (Basel). 10(4):630.

Gilligan KA, Thomas MSC, Farran EK. 2020. First demonstration of effective spatial training for near transfer to spatial performance and far transfer to a range of mathematics skills at 8 years. Dev Sci. 23(4):e12909.

Hodgkiss A, Gilligan KA, Tolmie AK, Thomas MSC, Farran EK. 2018. Spatial cognition and science achievement: The contribution of intrinsic and extrinsic spatial skills from 7 to 11 years. Br J Educ Psychol. 88(4):675-697.

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.

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Moore DS and Johnson SP. 2020. The development of mental rotation ability across the first year after birth. Adv Child Dev Behav. 58:1-33.

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

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. 

Pruden SM, Levine SC and Huttenlocher J. 2011. Children’s spatial thinking: Does talk about the spatial world matter? Developmental Science (14): 1417-1430.

Sann C and Streri A. 2007. Perception of object shape and texture in human newborns: evidence from cross-modal transfer tasks. Dev Sci. 10(3):399-410.

Scheiter K, Schleinschok K, Ainsworth S. 2017. Why Sketching May Aid Learning From Science Texts: Contrasting Sketching With Written Explanations. Top Cogn Sci. 9(4):866-882.

Schröder E, Gredebäck G, Gunnarsson J, Lindskog M. 2020. Play enhances visual form perception in infancy-an active training study. Dev Sci. 23(3):e12923.

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.

Slone LK, Moore DS, Johnson SP. 2018. PLoS One.13(8):e0200468.

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.

Van Meter P and Garner J. 2005. The promise and practice of learner-generated drawing: Literature review and synthesis. Educational Psychology Review. 17(4):285–325.

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title image of child looking at jigsaw pieces by RecycleMan / istock

image of toddler reaching for shape by Cicy / istock

image of 3-D shapes by Luisrftc / istock

image of kids reading map by monkeybusinessimages / istock

image of origami fox by Svetlana Khoruzhaia / istock

image of child’s hand assembling a tangram figure copyright Parenting Science

Content last modified 12/2023

Portions of the text derive from earlier versions of this article, written by the same author

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