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Spatial Intelligence – How to improve it?

Spatial intelligence, spatial IQ, or visual spatial intelligence, is crucial in many academic and professional fields. Despite the importance, it is rarely included in kindergarten or elementary curriculum​1​. But we can help our children improve their visual-spatial skills through simple and fun activities.

What is Spatial Intelligence

Spatial intelligence, also known as visual spatial intelligence or spatial reasoning, is the ability to imagine or visualize in one’s mind the positions of objects, their shapes, their spatial relations to one another and the movement they make to form new spatial relations.

Spatial intelligence is one of the nine intelligences in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by American psychologist Howard Gardner.

Spatial intelligence involves understanding and remembering the relative locations of objects in the mind. Objects can be manipulated through mental movement, rotation or transformation. It is the ability to perform visualization and spatial thinking in the head.

Six 3-dimensional shapes in different orientations - spatial intelligence

Visual Spatial Intelligence Example

Here is an example of utilizing spatial intelligence.

In the following prism test, can you tell when 1 is folded to form a triangular prism, which of the following (2-7) can be produced?

3D prism test - visual spatial intelligence example

To come up with the answer, you need to mentally form a picture of the prism being folded.

While doing it, you need to keep track of the relative positions of the different colored sides.

Answer: 2, 3 and 6 are the correct answers.

The Importance Of Spatial Intelligence

We use spatial awareness frequently in day-to-day functioning.

A child imagines where a toy is inside his bedroom before walking into the room to get it.

When we pack our luggage, we visualize how different items can fit together.

To assemble a furniture, we need to match the two-dimensional diagrams in the instructions to the three-dimensional furniture parts. 

Spatial Intelligence And Math

Spatial ability are particularly important to learning mathematics.

For example,

  • A student creates a mental geometric object that can be measured, moved, and transformed to facilitate geometric calculation and pattern recognition.
  • A mathematician uses visual spatial thinking to enhance quantity comparison, arithmetic, and number sense.

Many studies have found that high visual spatial skills is linked to better math performance​2​.

Spatial Skills And STEM

Spatial skills are also crucial in many academic and professional fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

  • A geoscientist mentally manipulates the movement of tectonic plates to see the process of earth formation.
  • A neurosurgeon visualizes different brain areas to predict the outcome of a surgery.
  • An engineer imagines how various forces may affect the design of a structure.

Research shows that college students who score high on spatial relations tests tend to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers​3​.

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Characteristics Of Visual Spatial Intelligence

Is Visual Spatial Intelligence Fixed Or Malleable?

People have different preferred cognitive thinking styles​4,5​.

Some are verbal thinkers who think in words. They are more comfortable with semantically and acoustically complex verbal tasks. Verbalizers usually prefer written and spoken explanations over pictures and diagrams.

Others are visual thinkers who think about subject matters using visual representation. There are two types of visualizers.

  1. Spatial visualizers
    They think in terms of schematic images, spatial relations among objects and spatial transformations. But the images they visualize lack visual details.
  2. Object visualizers
    They think in colorful, pictorial and high-resolution images of individual objects.

Spatial visualizers usually possess better spatial skills than object visualizers or verbalizers.

So if your child is a visual spatial learner, then he/she has a head start in spatial thinking.

However, visual spatial intelligence is not a fixed ability. Although some people are better at spatial processing than others, the good news is everyone can improve​6​.

Through training and practice, spatial ability, and in turn mathematics and STEM skills, can be boosted​7​.​8​

Does Gender Matter?

Although many studies suggest that malze performs better than female in visual spatial tasks, that doesn’t mean boys are always better than girls in spatial intelligence.

One’s belief in themselves and in the importance of effort can make a huge difference.

A recent study in Italy illustrates the importance of belief beautifully.

In the experiment, 152 high school students were divided into three groups and each group was given different instructions on a spatial intelligence test.

One group was told that women performed better than men in this task while another group was told men were better and the third group was not told any gender reference​9​.

Results showed that women in the first group scored the same as the men.

Another Italian study shows that believing in effort over innate ability can improve spatial performance, too. How a child performs in spatial thinking tasks can be affected given a different belief​10​. Researchers also find that the more a group of men and women practices spatial thinking, the smaller the gender gap is in visual spatial skills.

The gender gap could be the result of nurture rather than nature. In a remote community in India where women have equal or more rights than men, such a gender gap in visual spatial intelligence does not exist​11​.

So, never imply nor believe that girls are supposed to do worse in spatial learning, math or STEM. Girls and boys should both believe in themselves and their efforts spent on learning.

Early Learning

Early education plays a large role in preparing our children for later success​12​.

Neuroscientists find that specific regions in the brain responsible for thinking about location and spatial relationships develop in very early childhood​13​. In fact, preschoolers’ spatial abilities can predict their future performance in math learning in middle and high school​14​.

As children’s first teachers, parents can start teaching young children, even toddlers, the basics of spatial thinking. 

It is not too early to start familiarizing your toddler with spatial relations​15​. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate abilities related to mental rotation​16,17​.

Spatial ability is cumulative and durable. Those who master the skills in early childhood will have more opportunities to use it to acquire and organize additional information throughout their lives.

How To Improve Spatial Intelligence

1. Use spatial language in everyday interactions

Parents can help children improve spatial intelligence by using more spatial terms in everyday interaction.

Spatial language is a powerful spatial learning tool. Using spatial terms in everyday life is one of the best spatial awareness activities for kids.

Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names​18​. Preschoolers whose parents use more spatial words (such as triangle, big, tall or bent) perform better in spatial tests than those whose parents do not use such language​19,20​.

Here are some examples of spatial-terms.

Type of TermsExamples
Shapesquare, circle, sphere, triangle, pentagon
Dimensional adjectiveslarge, small, long, short, big, tiny, tall
Spatial featuresStraight, bent, curvy, corner, side, line, corner, pointy, sharp, edge
Spatial relationsinside, outside, under, around, corner, on top of, at the bottom of, in front of, behind, diagonal, across

But don’t just speak at your child to teach spatial terms. Ask your child to repeat the words back to you and explain what they mean. Encourage your child to use those terms, too.

Kids who can use more spatial terms are found to perform better in spatial recognition tasks. You can help them make the connections between spatial relations and objects around them​21​.

“Is the candy inside or outside of the glass?”

“Do you think the toy is under or behind the couch?”

“I see Lily across the street!”

Grownup moves toy car while child points at it - visual spatial intelligence

2. Teach gestures and encourage kids to use them to explain spatial relations

Hand-gesture is a powerful communicating and teaching tool. Children often learn better when gestures are used by teachers than when speech is used alone​22​.

When children use gesturing to indicate movements of objects, their visual spatial ability also improves. This improvement is also detected in children who do not spontaneously gesture but do so after being prompted to.

3. Teach children how to visualize using the mind’s eye

Visualization is using visual imagery to mentally represent an object not physically present. It is a powerful skill in spatial learning and problem-solving.

Young children can be taught to use visualization to enhance their spatial ability. For example, young children often have “gravity bias”. In an experiment, when a ball drops, preschoolers tend to think that it will appear directly below, even if the ball drops down a twisted tube. But when they are instructed to visualize the path of the ball before answering, more kids got the right answer​23​.

4. Play the matching game

Play the construction matching game​24​. Start by putting together a simple structure using building blocks and then ask the kids to match it in shape and in colors​25​. You can also have one child build the structure while another copy.

As they become more familiar with building and more confident in matching, increase the complexity of the structures.

5. Play blocks and build objects in a storytelling context

Playing with building objects such as Lego and wooden blocks can substantially increase a child’s spatial thinking ability. 

But you don’t need perfectly crafted toys. Even a few cereal boxes or toilet paper rolls can be used to stack and build interesting structures.

Give them a problem to solve. A study shows that when block building activities are carried out in a storytelling context, children’s spatial intelligence improves more.

6. Play tangram, non-jigsaw and other open-ended puzzles

Tangram in multiple color pieces - spatial awareness

Tangram is an ancient Chinese puzzle consisting of seven pieces. The pieces can be rearranged into many different shapes such as animals, people or objects. It is a teaching tool that has been proven to increase students’ spatial ability​26​.

The jigsaw puzzle has been recommended by many sources to help increase children’s spatial intelligence. It is probably because a study finds that preschoolers who already play puzzles perform better in a mental transformation spatial task than those who don’t. It also finds that the more frequently the child plays, the better they perform​27​.

No doubt, there is a strong association between puzzle solving and spatial intelligence. However, no controlled studies have been found to establish a causal relationship between them.

The problem with jigsaw puzzles is that, unlike tangram, there is only one fixed way to fit the pieces together. A study has found that preschoolers who have played with a single-solution puzzle are less innovative and flexible in subsequent problem solving than children who have played with a multiple-solution block building set​28​.

Until there is research that proves the values of single-solution puzzles, I recommend using multiple-solution spatial puzzles, such as tangram, over jigsaw puzzles to help children improve their visual spatial skills​29​.

7. Expose children to map reading

Map reading can help children acquire abstract concepts of space and the ability to think systematically about spatial relationships that are not otherwise experienced directly in the physical world.

Maps present spatial information that differs from direct experience navigating the world. Children can learn to think about multiple large-scale spatial relations among different locations in a concrete way through map reading.

8. Read spatial-rich books

Books such as Zoom and Re-Zoom are great picture books that can draw children into a world of visualization and spatial thinking. The increasing level of detail helps illustrate the different spatial relations among objects.

When reading these books with the kids, the parent can enhance spatial intelligence by verbal explanation and gestures.

9. Play spatial video games such as Tetris

Playing spatial video games such as Marble Madness or Tetris, have shown to be beneficial to children’s spatial intelligence. The improvement is more pronounced in low-ability kids​30​.

Tetris video game - visual intelligence

10. Help your child explore photography

Visual spatial perspective-taking is the ability to imagine how things look like from another viewpoint different from one’s own​31​.

Taking photos of objects at different angles can enhance children’s ability to take on different visual perspectives and recognize changes in scale​32​.

11. Play Origami and practice paper folding

Mental paper folding has long been used to increase mental rotational ability.

Although no research is found to link physical paper folding to spatial intelligence, it is not farfetched to believe that physical paper folding practice can enhance mental paper folding ability.

12. Learn to play music

Several studies have found that learning to make music can raise spatial-temporal ability.

Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to think of spatial relations that change through time. This skill allows you to mentally pack your luggage one item after another to see how to fit the most items.

Notice that this is different from the controversial “Mozart Effect” theory that claims listening to music can enhance a variety of skills including spatial thinking. 

A meta-analytic review of 553 studies supports the theory that music instruction, rather than music listening, is associated with better spatial intelligence​33​.

13. Make three-dimensional crafts

Try some of these spatial relations activities.

Visual spatial intelligence infographic

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