Heather Burte, PhD, is a post-doctoral researcher in the Psychology Department at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and she works on assessing how the Think3d! program impacts math and science learning. The Think3d! program uses origami and paper engineering to teach elementary students how to translate between two-dimensional diagrams and three-dimensional objects, which is a fundamental spatial thinking skill.

Kids who want to be astronauts when they grow up probably don’t realize they’ve been studying space from day one. And by studying space, they can also become a doctor, or an engineer, or a computer scientist ….

A person’s ability to think spatially—to use the spatial properties in the world to solve problems—has been linked to interest in, educational success in and careers in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)1 and there is growing evidence that teaching spatial thinking skills can lead to improvements in mathematics and science learning.2  By encouraging your children’s skills in spatial thinking, you can help ensure they can grow up to be whatever they want to be. And since infants start learning how the world works spatially (e.g., toys fall when dropped) immediately after birth, that encouragement should start from day one.3

What is spatial thinking and how can I identify it? 

All of us use spatial thinking every day, but it’s easy to overlook because it’s such a fundamental part of our daily lives. We live in a world in which everyone and everything has a shape, a location, a distance, and direction to other objects. These spatial properties—locationdistancedirectionshapeformmotionorientationcompositionpatterns, etc.—are fundamental to our lives and how we interact in the world. When you use spatial properties in an activity, you are using spatial thinking (also known as spatial strategy). For example, packing a suitcase requires you to fit objects of different sizes and shapes into a rectangular suitcase. One way of making everything fit is tochange the shape of objects you are packing, by folding clothes, bundling cords together, disassembling larger objects, etc. 

Once you start looking for spatial properties, you will find spatial thinking everywhere! Driving a car? That’s spatial thinking! Reading a map? Solving long division? Rearranging furniture? Repairing an engine? All of these activities require spatial thinking.

Do infants and toddlers use spatial thinking? 

Absolutely, and you can see this in action when you show an infant a toy moving in a physically impossible way, and they are surprised (e.g., a ball rolls down a ramp and goes through an apparently solid wall). Their surprise reveals that young infants have already started learning how the world works spatially.4 And a large part of what children are doing in their toddler years is figuring out how to use their bodies to make changes to the spatial properties of objects. You can see this in toddlers as they delight in movingpushingthrowing,building, and destroying everything they can touch. They are spatial thinkers already! 

How can I encourage spatial thinking in my infant/toddler?

One of the easiest ways of encouraging spatial thinking with young children is to use spatial words and gestures. When you are playing with them, try to use spatial words like “up,” “down,” “inside” and “upside-down.” Make up a spatial game with your toddler, such as asking them “Can you put the squaretoy above the castle?” or “Can you hide under the slide?” As you are speaking, feel free to use your hands and/or your body to illustrate what you are talking about. Encourage your kids to use their hands or act out what they want to say. 

As children grow older, encourage their interest in spatial activities. If your children enjoy building, then encourage and challenge their spatial thinking by giving them supplies of different shapes and sizes, and be excited when they show you their creations. As you are doing this, make sure to encourage spatial thinking in both boys and girls. Toys marketed toward boys tend to be more spatial—e.g., building blocks, Legos, K’NEX—while toys marketed toward girls tend to be less spatial—e.g., dolls, dress-up clothes, stuffed animals. But it’s important for both boys and girls to gain experience thinking spatially. So if your son likes stuffed animals, help himconstruct a house, or design a moving vehicle for his animals. If your daughter loves drawing, encourage her to expand her spatial thinking skills through sculpting or making 3D versions of her drawings. By paying attention to the activities your children already enjoy, you can encourage them to take on new challenges that push their spatial thinking skills even further. 

Encouraging your child to think spatially throughout their lives will allow them to gain the skills they need for any career they choose to pursue. So remember: Keep calm and think spatially!

1 Including fields such as medicine (Keehner, Tendick, Meng, Anwar, Hegarty, Stoller, & Duh, 2004); dentistry (Hegarty, Keehner, Khooshabeh, & Montello, 2009); physics (Kozhevnikov, Motes, & Hegarty, 2007); chemistry (Coleman & Gotch, 1998); mathematics (Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997); engineering (Peters, Chisholm, & Laeng, 1995); and geology (Orion, Ben-Chaim, & Kali, 1997). 

2 See Nora Newcombe’s “Picture This: Increasing math and science learning by improving spatial thinking”Uttal, Meadow, Tipton, Hand, Alden, Warren, & Newcombe (2012); and Cheng & Mix (2014).

3 See Newcombe and Huttenlocher’s 2000 book Making Space: The development of spatial representation and reasoning and Ness and Farenga’s 2007 book Knowledge under construction: The importance of play in developing children's spatial and geometric thinking.

4 See Baillargeon, Spelke, & Wasserman, 1985Baillargeon, 1987Baillargeon, 1994Spelke, Breinlinger, Macomber, & Jacobson, 1992Spelke, & Van de Walle, 1993; and Aguiar & Baillargeon, 1999.


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