The Importance Of Visual Spatial Reasoning Skills
Visual spatial reasoning (sometimes called spatial reasoning or spatial intelligence) is a crucial skill in many fields, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). However, it is relatively neglected and rarely included in kindergarten or elementary curriculum1.
Early education plays a large role in preparing our children for later success. As children’s first teachers, parents can start teaching them the basics of spatial thinking when they are still toddlers.
But the good news is that research shows we can improve preschoolers’ spatial skills substantially through training.
What Is Visual Spatial Reasoning?
Visual spatial ability is the capacity to see, understand and remember the spatial relations among objects in the mind.
Spatial reasoning involves imagining or visualizing an object’s movement. Objects are manipulated through mental movement or transformation to form new spatial relations.
For example, when 1 is folded to form a triangular prism, which of the followings can be produced?
The Importance Of Spatial Skills
We use spatial skills frequently in day-to-day functioning.
For instance, a child imagines where a toy is put inside their bedroom before walking into the room to get it2. When we pack our luggage, we visualize how different items can fit together to maximize the storage inside. To put together “easy to assemble” furniture, we need to match the two-dimensional diagrams to the three-dimensional furniture parts.
Many academic and professional fields also require good mastering of spatial skills. An engineer uses spatial reasoning to visualize how various forces may affect the design of a structure. A geoscientist mentally manipulates the movement of tectonic planes to see the process of earth formation. A neurosurgeon visualizes different brain areas to predict the outcome of a surgery.
In fact, researches find that students who score high on spatial tests tend to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers3.
Math And Spatial Skills
Spatial visualization is also essential in many different areas of mathematics including number sense, quantification, quantity comparison, and arithmetic.
For example, in geometry, which is the study of space and shape of objects, students can use spatial reasoning to create in their mind a mental object which can then be measured, moved, and transformed. Good spatial skills can facilitate geometric calculation and pattern recognition4.
A recent study finds that preschoolers’ spatial skills can predict their future performance in math in middle and high school 5.
Can Spatial Skills Be Improved?
People have different preferred thinking styles.
Some are verbal thinkers who think in words and prefer written and spoken explanations. They are more comfortable with semantically and acoustically complex verbal tasks.
Some are visual thinkers or visualizers who think about subject matters using visual representation. They usually prefer learning through visual materials such as pictures, diagrams or flow charts.
Some visual thinkers are also spatial thinkers. They think in terms of spatial relationship among objects, but the images they visualize do not have visual details. Spatial thinkers are very skilled at spatial reasoning6.
While some people are better at spatial thinking than others, everyone can improve7.
A $1 million pilot project supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development can shed some light on how spatial thinking can be improved through training and practice, and how the improvement benefits math learning.
In this project, kindergarteners and first graders were randomly assigned to two afterschool intervention groups.
In one group, children were asked to construct and copy designs made from a variety of materials such as Legos, pattern blocks and construction papers.
The control group, on the other hand, was given a non-spatial curriculum.
After 7 months, 4 days a week, the children in the first group made a substantial improvement in their math performance. They moved from the 30th percentile nationwide in numeracy and applied math knowledge to the 47th percentile. In the control group, no gain in math score was observed.
Does Gender Matter?
Although many studies suggest that male performs better than female in spatial reasoning tasks, that doesn’t mean a boy is always better than a girl in spatial thinking.
Some girls are better in spatial reasoning than boys while some boys are worse than girls.
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 thinking 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.
Results showed that women in the first group scored the same as the men ((http://www.researchgate.net/publication/222271082_Are_males_always_better_than_females_in_mental_rotation_Exploring_a_gender_belief_explanation)).
Another Italian study shows that believing in effort over innate ability can improve spatial performance, too. Similar to the gender experiment, 120 high school students were divided into three groups. Before given a spatial test, one group was given instructions that stressed the importance of personal effort while the other the importance of genetically driven ability. The third group was the control and was only told that the test was very important. The group that received effort emphasis instructions outperformed the other two groups10.
As you can see, it is plausible to affect one’s ability to perform spatial reasoning task given a different belief. Unfortunately, stereotypes about gender permeate our society. But we, the parents, can change this by believing in our girls and encouraging them to keep practicing. Studies shows that even if one starts with a lower score in spatial reasoning, they, too, can improve substantially if they keep practicing11.
For low-ability students, they need to do more work to get over an initial hump. The initial improvement can be slow, but if they persevere, faster improvement will come later12.
Studies also find that the more a group of men and women practices spatial thinking, the smaller the gender gap is in spatial skills13.
Early Spatial Thinking Education
It is not too early to start familiarizing your toddler, boy or girl, with spatial thinking. Neuroscientists find that specific regions in the brain responsible for thinking about location and spatial relationships develop in very early childhood14. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate abilities related to mental rotation15‘16.
Like many other skills, spatial reasoning also appears to be cumulative. Those who master the skills in early childhood will have more opportunities to use it to acquire and organize additional information throughout their lives. So the earlier the education, the larger and longer lasting the improvement17.
How To Improve Spatial Intelligence
Parents can start by using more spatial terms in everyday interaction.
Spatial language is a powerful spatial learning tool. Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names18. 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 language19.
Here are some example spatial terms that can be added to daily interactions.
|Type of terms||Description||Examples|
|Shape||Mathematical names that describe two- and three-dimensional objects and spaces.||shape, square, circle, sphere, triangle, pentagon|
|Dimensional adjectives||Terms that describe the size of spaces, objects and people.||large, small, short, tiny, small, long|
|Spatial features||Terms that describe the features and properties of two- and three-dimensional spaces, objects and people.||Straight, bent, curvy, corner, side, line, corner|
Spatial Games And Activities
Besides spatial talk, there are many games and activities parents can do with their toddlers to boost their spatial reasoning intelligence. In the next article, I will start enlisting games and activities that can promote spatial thinking.
Understanding kindergarten teachers’ perspectives of teaching basic geometric shapes: a phenomenographic research. By Hatice Zeynep Inan, Ozlem Dogan-Temur http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11858-010-0241-1 ↩
Daniel l. shea, David lubinski, and Camilla P. benbow, “importance of assessing spatial ability in intellectually talented young adolescents: a 20-year longitudinal study,” Journal of Educational Psychology 93, no. 3 (2001): 604–614. ↩
Charles H. Wolfgang, laura l. stannard, and ithel Jones, “advanced Constructional Play with leGos among Preschoolers as a Predictor of later school achievement in mathematics,” Early Child Development and Care 173, no. 5 (2003): 467–475. ↩